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March 2, 2013

Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:19 AM * 113 comments

Like many of us on Making Light, I am much intrigued by myths and how we retell them as times change. One I’ve been tracking for some time is the myth of the Finding of the True King (or Queen). We don’t go in much for swords in stones any more, and scrofula turns out to be treatable by antibiotics—at least until the drug-resistant strains take over. But we’re still telling the stories.

I caught a whiff of the myth while I was watching Tangled. There’s a scene where Flynn the thief, trying to scare Rapunzel, takes her to the wretchedest hive of scum and villainy he knows: the Snuggly Duckling tavern, where all the brigands and murderers hang out. It doesn’t work out quite how he expects. By the time she’s done with them, these scary men have told her all of their secret dreams and hopes. She gives them the encouragement to be their true selves, their best selves, whether that’s a stage pianist or a mime. Having been transformed, they then rescue her later on in the film. She’s their queen long before even she knows it.

But Tangled was about other things for me, so I filed the observation and moved on.

The thought resurfaced this past Christmas when I watched a Dutch film, Koning van Katoren (King of Katoren). It’s about a young man named Stach who decides to apply for the vacant position of king of his (modern) European country. The ruling junta set him a bunch of Herculean tasks—curing diseases, fighting dragons, defeating wizards*—and settle back to wait for him to give up or be killed. But in each case, this rather gormless party boy works with the locals to solve the problem at hand. He demonstrates a number of useful traits for a modern king: taking on powerful corporations for the sake of ordinary people, tactical planning, physical courage, and a willingness not only to sacrifice himself, but to choose wisely among the opportunities to do so. Then he gets given the final task. He’s told to throw himself off of a tower into the courtyard below.

His girlfriend (daughter of one of the junta members, whom he has won over as he’s done the other quests) sends out a message on Facebook: come to the capital, and bring your pillow. All of the people he’s helped in all of his previous quests come, and create a pile of cushions large enough to catch him. He leaps, he lands, he is king.

The common thread between those two children’s movies is the idea that the True Monarch is not just one who does great deeds, nor even one who leads others to do great deeds. The True Monarch inspires people to do great deeds that neither the Monarch nor the people themselves would have dreamed of doing. Monarch as catalyst. It reminds me of the last paragraph of an otherwise hilarious rant about the Elfstedentocht (the Dutch Eleven Cities’ ice-skating race) that I Parheliated last year:

First across the line will be a mysterious giant, a seven-foot tall stranger whose eleven-stamped card identifies him only as a Mr. W.A. van Buren of Wassenaar, and a nation will stand and weep, each and all with the exact exalted grace as did his royal bride those ten long years ago, but this time, the theme to Soldier of Orange will play as a people realizes the true nature of its sudden hero, who will then be crowned king, right then and there on the Bonkevaart all frozen over, on the Twenty-First day of the Second month of the year Two Thousand and Twelve, king glorious King William IV, before the eyes of all of Leeuwarden and all of Freezeland and all of the shining Nation, to be august King of all Dutch, for all Dutch, and all will be well again, all will be well we will not be so angry anymore, and not be so tired, and maybe, just maybe, not so greedy or callous, but noble and caring and quiet and strong, and all will be well, for a thousand triumphant years.

All will be well again, all will be well. We will not be so angry anymore, and not so tired, and maybe, just maybe, not so greedy or callous, but noble and caring and quiet and strong. What is that but the heartfelt cry of longing for the True King, and chance to be the people that he could make us into?

And we Americans aren’t immune from that hunger for someone to make us our best selves either. We just call them Presidents and go through them faster. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, you can. Si se puede. Remember the heady days of Obama’s first campaign? That was a real thing: the hunger to have a True President, at least for a while. We hoped he would make us our best selves.

As it happens, two of my three monarchies are in transition at the moment. The monarchy of my residence is easy: Willem-Alexander will be a perfectly adequate king, just as his mother was a perfectly adequate Queen. We’ll sing the Wilhemus and wear orange for his birthday; there may be drinking and flea markets. All will be pretty much OK. May my second-passport monarchy (Windsor) do as well.

But my first monarchy is the one that concerns me right now. The organization is in deep, structural trouble. The holder’s sudden choice to vacate the throne is worrying, and I am torn between curiosity and dread to hear (what we will ever hear of) why he really stepped down. And although I’m sure the Conclave is intending to vote for the Pope who will make us all our best selves, I don’t think they’re the right electorate to identify him. I think they, and the entire hierarchy, have forgotten (or never knew) what it is to be a Catholic in the world. I don’t think they will elect a Pope who will make us our best selves (or them their best selves), and when he does not, I think they will continue to blame everyone but themselves.

I wish it were not so. I’d love a Pope who renewed the church, and turned us from an engine of politics and condemnation to one of love and healing. That’s what I hope for. But I know better than to expect it. Because the True Monarch is a fairy tale, no more real than its cousin-myth of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Conclave will choose someone in scarlet robes who won’t, even if he wants to, be able to turn the rumbling Juggernaut of the hierarchy from its course. In the same way, Willem-Alexander will open hospitals, kiss babies, and change nothing. And Obama will send out more drones.

But the fact that fairy tales don’t come true doesn’t rob them of their value. The problems they describe are real, even if the solutions that follow aren’t. There are no True Monarchs, but the hunger to be our best selves endures. In the end—as in the beginning and the middle—we turn ourselves into those best selves, every day, piece by piece and act by act.

* My favorite task doesn’t really fit the list of classic quests. Stach has to stop four houses of worship that travel endlessly though the streets of Uikumene: a Catholic church, a Protestant church, a synagogue and a mosque. They grind along the roads accompanied by dust and deep rumbling noises, steered by deacons using great wheels behind the pulpits, and worshipers have to run alongside them and hop aboard. It’s wonderful imagery. Stach plots four courses that bring them together in the central square, so that their ceaseless magical momentum holds them in dynamic stasis. He and the mayor use a shared choral performance to coordinate the movements, meaning that the magnificent endeavor is completed to the strains of Ode to Joy. Because, Europe.

Comments on Athelas:
#1 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 05:48 AM:

Some while towards the end of the last century, I was startled to realize that all of the lofty ambitions I'd held growing up and as a young adult had fallen away and become—well, not meaningless, but no longer compelling: to become a falconer, to become a black belt. An NLP master. A writer.... Even when I mastered skills required by these achievements, and thereby garnered recognition for them, I remained hungry and unsatisfied.

That was around the same time that I had finally been angry enough, long enough, that I was ready to not be angry anymore.

And I finally worked out why all my old ambitions had fallen away: it was because, as I worked my way through them, I found that they didn't give me what I really wanted. At first I was puzzled by this, but then I observed satisfaction creeping in from a completely unanticipated direction: having released being angry (without giving up the right or ability to do so), I was now practicing being kind and pleasant—and that was feeding the deep need I'd felt all my life.

I finally realized, by succeeding first accidentally and occasionally, and then more deliberately and reliably, that my crowning ambition in life was to be a kind person, the sort of person who you come away from feeling a little more relaxed, a little more amused, maybe a little more who you want to be.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 06:20 AM:

Jacque @1:

You do it well. I've appreciated it many times here on Making Light, particularly in the DF threads.

I went through a similar transition to the one you describe in that link, back in about 2004. I was severely depressed, and had been bounced into going to a counsellor, mostly against my will. I loathed the entire intrusive, invasive situation, and figured out how to hack my mood purely to give myself a reason to quit going.

I used a similar technique to yours, but instead of focusing on something to be grateful for, I focused on joy. Find a single thing, no matter how tiny, that gave me a sense of wonder and delight in the world, and give myself over to that delight, even for a moment. First it was a labor, then it was a habit. Every now and then, I rediscover and reinvent the process to keep it fresh.

My latest iteration is to think complimentary thoughts about strangers, particularly when I'm tempted to be snide. Find something good about everyone I pass: their clothing, their hair, the way they walk. Wish them well.

#3 ::: David Langford ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 06:48 AM:

Stach and the churches: a story I actually know and love! But only the book version and only in English, as How to Become King by Jan Terlouw (1976, no translator credit). Here Stach is Stark and Uikumene is Ecumene -- likely enough changes in translation -- and there are twelve churches rather than four, given nonspecific names. No synagogue or mosque that I noticed. No Ode to Joy, just "They decide on a hymn they all know." But obviously a film can't be nonspecific in quite that way.

#4 ::: David Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 07:38 AM:

"In the end—as in the beginning and the middle—we turn ourselves into those best selves, every day, piece by piece and act by act."

That is just beautiful. In fact the whole post gave me more pleasure than anything I have read for quite some time.

Despite the intrusive apostrophe in "it's cousin-myth"

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 07:39 AM:

David Evans @4:

I'll fix the apostrophe. And I'm glad the post worked for you.

#6 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 07:58 AM:

David Langford @3:

That's the book. Terlouw is a politician as well as an author—he became D66 party leader a couple of years after it was published (he sits in the Eerste Kamer now). It's intended to be both a young adult novel and an allegory of the problems the Netherlands was facing at the time.

Uikemene/Ekumene is about the complex position of the churches in Dutch society at the time. This was when "pillarization"—the division of society into Catholic, Protestant and social-democratic institutions—was just dissolving into the more fluid modern arrangement. Indeed, D66 was formed as part of that dissolution, so Terlouw probably had some strong feelings about getting the churches to stop grinding through the streets in stately but unproductive orbits.

I gather that the film substantially reworks the book, not just in its inclusion of Facebook and blogging, but in a drastic reordering of the quests and their meanings. I haven't yet read the original, but it's on my list. I'm interested to see how the differences change the overall point of the story.

#7 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 08:30 AM:

Beautiful post, Abi, with much food for thought.

From my Catholic perspective, I've learned not to expect to find the kind of king you describe in the Holy See, or the other high Church offices. I will be happy if the next Pope manages to shake up the curia and the hierarchy, removes the more problematic institutional occasions of sin (does the Vatican really *need* its own bank at this point, for instance?), and instills a real sense of accountability -- to their flock, to the world, and to God -- in those who hold the high offices that have been subject to too much deference in the past.

In my more optimistic moods, my hope about Benedict's abdication is that he recognized that a shake-up like this needs to happen, something that he in his current frailty was not capable of doing himself to the extent necessary, and which the Church cannot afford to postpone until his death. (Especially if he lingers as long as his predecessor did.)

For the rest? Well, our King didn't come in the way that people expected, or take the kinds of positions of power many of those awaiting a Messiah were expecting. And yet, He did the things you describe so wonderfully in your post, and He remains the model many follow to become their true, best selves, and to set aside power-games and condemnation for love and healing.

Personally, I also need to look to those who are less distant in time and space. So I also try to look to the saints-- both those who have been officially recognized and those who have not. They all have flaws-- because, you know, humans-- and I relate to some more than others, but they can inspire me as well when I'm in the right disposition. Dorothy Day is one of the people I often think of these days, for instance.

When I do, I'm often also reminded to look for my King reflected in the people and places around me, and remember to be kind, to be wise, to spread joy. And I think I manage that sometimes. This is one of the places where I find those reminders.

We need a good Pope, yes, but more than that, we need more saints. And to be more like the saints ourselves.

#8 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom descends among the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 08:37 AM:

...I suspect due to excessive space. Would they like some thyme, I wonder?

#9 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 08:44 AM:

I want badly to think about this and comment on it, and time is not likely to permit for several days. So consider this a drive-by, leaving a shower of admiration behind as I pass. Thank you.

#10 ::: Sherwood Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:17 AM:

Loved this post. Thank you.

#11 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:20 AM:

A little more about that sort of leadership-- Stone Soup.

And helping people who already have some momentum, which works better than starting with your own plan. This is almost the opposite of stone soup, but the web is large, it contains multitudes. This link has the advantage of being about things which actually happened.

At least in English, How to Become King is very rare and expensive. I wonder if it would be worth trying to get it back into print.

Jacque, that essay has a lot that's relevant for me-- especially the bit about trying to force emotions.

So far as the Pope is concerned, I'm going with the boring hypothesis that he's sick and he's tired. There might have been a last straw or a push, but there may have been no secrets involved.

Unfortunately, I can't reconstruct my line of reasoning, but I concluded at the beginning that Benedict was a man without much courage or physical energy. Retiring is consistent with that.

The other thing is that retiring is a modern/pragmatic choice. In ordinary terms, it's better for the Pope to not have miserable last years, and it's better for the Catholic Church to have a Pope who's able to focus on his work.

I think a way that Catholicism can go wrong is drifting from offering consolation for necessary suffering to teaching that suffering is good in itself. I wasn't expecting to see some change starting with the Pope being kind to himself.

#12 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:48 AM:

This is a wonderful post, Abi. Helping people become their best selves is something I try to do on a very basic level with kiddos. I hope I've helped some Alphans do that, too; as staff, I'm more of a facilitator than an ingredient.

I'm going to see if I can find the Dutch movie. It sounds interesting and inspirational.

#13 ::: Diatryma, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:49 AM:

Who helps the gnomes be their best?

#14 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:56 AM:

There's an adjacent myth: If only the king knew ...

You see it in the Middle Ages all the time, not only in literature, but in the deeds of people, doomed, deluded, or both. The so-called Second Shepherd's Crusade and their message for Phillip V. If only he knew, they thought, he would lead them in a great crusade against the Moors and right all wrongs. Phillip refused to meet with them and the Pastoreaux turned their violence on others, including the Jews. King Richard II met with the poor of field and town in London, and the rebels were sure that if the king only knew how hard their masters were treating them, all would be well. Richard met with them, rounded up the ringleaders, and released the hounds. If only the king knew.

A famous medievalist and I were speaking recently of the drone program, and she admitted that she harbored the fantasy that Obama, who she wants to believe in, had been led astray by poor council. If only the king knew, she said with a smile, if only I could tell him how wrong this is. Of course, we agreed, it's clear he does know.

The flip side of "if only the king knew" is the myth of bad council and the problem of favoritism. It's the belief that the monarch is good but that the voices whispering in his ear lead him astray. If only the king knew.

I've been thinking and writing a lot about the papal election of late and listening to the Catholic cognoscenti on my campus. All agree, fundamentally, that Benedict is a good man and brilliant scholar, unfit for the duties of administration due to his best qualities (brilliance, introspection), and led astray. I'm not convinced, but I tend not to speak my mind on this one.

I think we hold onto our identities in intolerable situations by clinging to myths like, "If only the king knew." We need them. Losing identity is a savage process from which some never recover.

#15 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:20 AM:

Jacque #1: Um... I think I need to think about that for a while.

Abi #0: One thing that's showing there is the intersection of myth and magic. Perhaps the most elemental definition of magic is, "How the *** did they do that?" That applies both to things that aren't officially seen as magic anymore (animal control, blacksmithing, prestidigitation), and also to new contenders such as computer programming.

In the stories you give, the ancient magic in question is leadership. The community is dispirited, dysfunctional, threatened... then "a man comes to town", and somehow, he changes everything. There is also a dark side to both myth and magic, which is the King of Misrule.

In any case, the King or equivalent is always a magical and somewhat mythic figure, and quite a few of the presidents have been cast into archetypical molds: Washington the Champion, Jefferson the Sage, Teddy Roosevelt the Adventurer, Clinton the Lustful, and Shrub as King of Misrule (displacing Nixon, who wasn't a great fit for the shoes anyway). Carter could have been a Saint-King but was too personally reticent, and I'm not sure offhand how to categorize FDR. And, of course there was Kennedy, whose reign was dubbed "Camelot" in his lifetime.

#16 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:27 AM:

And an addendum re: David #14: The mythic King is also a representative of (the) God(s) -- thus "if only the king knew" corresponds to a belief in the efficacy of prayer.

#17 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:31 AM:

@16 Dave H. I'm sure you're right. I don't think that's how it works in the medieval context I know best, though. The human-ness of the king is critical.

#18 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:36 AM:

Robocop is another variant on "if only the King knew".

#19 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:46 AM:

Nancy @18 - Wow. That is brilliant. The world must be told.

#20 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:07 AM:

David @14, I was thinking of a related but different adjacent myth, which is the king traveling among his people in disguise to get a true sense of their needs and to right wrongs. The most obvious instance in my mind is the scene in the classic Robin Hood movie with Errol Flynn when Richard reappears, but there are others.

#21 ::: Mishalak ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:51 AM:

George Washington was that sort of king. He was not more militarily brilliant than anyone else of his age, he was not a great governmental philosopher, but he did set out to be a great man and acted the part so deeply into his private life that he rose above most revolutionary founders. He was only human, but a very great one in regards to living up to the myth he created for himself. I read the biography of Washington by Ron Chernow and unlike reading about the personal lives of other big figures from history his flaws only made him more likable to me. Getting behind the "cherry tree cannot tell a lie" and "first in war" mythology made me like him much more.

Looking around at modern politicians it seems as though Corey Booker has read the king myths as well. I do not know if he is what he is trying to be, but The Week had and article entitled 6 Strange ways Cory Booker helps his constituents. The flip side to the amazement that such an energetic 'king' engenders is the worry that he might turn out to have feet of clay. We want to believe but we also mistrust people who are too perfect. I think that is why I ended up liking Washington more when I read more about who he was as a person.

#22 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:01 PM:

Dave Harmon @15:
One thing I was thinking about is the way that our expectations from a monarch have changed over the centuries, and how the myths are only just catching up.

It's been a long time since we actually wanted a king strong enough to draw a sword out of a stone, or a queen so fragile that she could feel a pea through a dozen feather beds. We've wanted inspirational leadership from our royalty and pseudo-royalty for a century or two now, but it's only recently that a Disney princess has embodied that desire.

Koning van Katoren struck me because of the contrast between Stach's mythic status in the story and its thoroughly contemporary setting. "These are the myths of a modern monarchy," I told Martin.

OtterB @20:

There's a scene like that in The Shoes of the Fisherman.

#23 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:24 PM:

Abi @ 22... Drat! I was just about to mention that movie.

#24 ::: Mike ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:26 PM:

Jacque @1, that sounds strikingly similar to Metta Meditation, described as "a strong wish for the happiness of others."

#25 ::: Lowell Gilbert ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:33 PM:

King in disguise among the people: an ancient device, but I think of "Henry V" as the platonic ideal of the gimmick.

#26 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:44 PM:

Discussion of "if only the king knew" reminds me of The Old Wicked Wazir Trick, where the monarch gets credit for all the decrees people will like, and some high official is stuck with announcing and implementing everything unpopular. It's a classic.

#27 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:48 PM:

Lowell Gilbert @ 24: You are a better person than I am. My first thought isn't Henry V, but King Lear.

I am so hoping this movie does well enough to get dubbed into English but not well enough to get remade by Hollywood. Optioned, yes, and I hope the author makes out like a bandit, but not ruined by idiocy.

#28 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 12:59 PM:

John Mark Ockerbloom @7:

Yes, this, all of this.

#29 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 01:24 PM:

Beautiful post, abi.

Also, I want to see that movie.

#30 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 01:56 PM:

My favorite literary version of the True Monarch is Carrot, from Pratchett's Discworld novels. He has a mysterious crown-shaped birthmark, and a sword that's not magical at all. He was raised as an orphan in a dwarf mine, and went out to seek his fortune. His power is exactly what Abi describes: he turns those around him into better versions of himself.

But instead of taking up the long-empty throne, he works in the city watch. When he's on duty, he organizes friendly ball games between members of rival street games. Nobody, you see, can bear to disappoint him, and they all struggle to be the people he sees them as.

The city, you see, works fine without king. And Carrot seems to like his job.

There's a great scene in Man At Arms, where Carrot is being rewarded by city's ruler, and Carrot alludes in passing to his "kingship":

"But I will not command the watch, if that's what you mean."

"Why not?"

"Because… people should do things because an officer tells them. They shouldn't do it just because Corporal Carrot says so. Just because Corporal Carrot is… good at being obeyed." Carrot's face was carefully blank.

Carrot, if you will, is the True Monarch who is wise enough to know that people need to solve their own problems.

#31 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:00 PM:

Bedford Falls's One True King, George Bailey...

#32 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:28 PM:

I've always, as an adult, had trouble with the Christ-as-King motif; if one interprets King as meaning a traditional absolute monarch there's the immediate problem that absolute monarchs are a hated class in overall sharp decline, like slaveowners. ("Well, I didn't vote for you.") You can try to modernise the imagery and imagine a forward-thinking liberal constitutional monarchy, where God is the theoretical source of all legal and moral authority but keeps His hands away from the details most of the time: a King who might as well be a European-style rubberstamping President. But interpreting the King as being the King Who Walked Among Us is almost certainly the interpretation I'm happiest with.

When Margaret Thatcher was toppled in 1990, it felt less like a political event than a regicide, whatever your opinion of her. I remember the weirdness of having a new prime minister who was referred to as He rather than She. The gender of the PM had been indisputably and irrevocably female since an infinite past. It'll be similar when CIIIR (or whatever royal name he calls himself) replaces EIIR.

(One of the traditional questions asked of head-injury patients is Who Is The Prime Minister? It is said that this question had become diagnostically useless by the late 1980s. Maggie had been PM for so long, and with such intensity, that a patient's brain could be wrecked beyond hope of survival, yet they'd still remember who the PM was.)

#33 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:34 PM:

Eric K @30:
Yep. Carrot is what you get when Pratchett takes on the One True King myth. Another reason that series is so bloody brilliant.

Steve with a book @32:
Really, right until I read John Mark Ockerbloom @7, I too was uncomfortable with Christ the King. I hadn't really thought through the implications of the title in the light of this interpretation of kingship.

#34 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:38 PM:

David Langford #3. Yes! I remember reading the book when the local library acquired it, which couldn't be much after it came out.

#35 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 02:50 PM:

"If the king only knew" and "King travels as commoner" are fairly common (The Prince and the Pauper, several sequences in Sandman, and a TV show that I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't seen it while waiting for a hamburger last night. Undercover Boss). There's a flip side to that, though: sometimes the king discovers that the people are making things much worse than they should be, and gets angry.

On thinking kindly towrd others: Hakomi, which I've mentioned here before, starts with the idea of paying attention to what is nurturing me in the people I'm spending time with. Like any meditation, it's an exercise that gets a little easier with time (and is never completely finished). I like its effects on me, though.

#36 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 03:09 PM:

David #17: The human-ness of the king is critical. Right, but then, the mythic roles of king and god are parallel, not meant to be directly conflated. The relevant rule of magic would be "as above, so below".

Abi #22: Part of the problem here in America -- and likely elsewhere -- is that the "instinctive" responses toward high leadership don't really suit what's needed for a participatory democracy, just as our traditional dominance patterns are problematic in modern management structures.

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 03:23 PM:

David Harmon @36:
the "instinctive" responses toward high leadership don't really suit what's needed for a participatory democracy, just as our traditional dominance patterns are problematic in modern management structures.

But what's neat about these myths is that they're about a positive effect that's palatable to modern sensibilities. People don't obey the True Monarch. Their actions don't further his power, nor even his goals. They just become better people in all that they want to do: braver, more generous, kinder.

#38 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 03:39 PM:

OK, someone has to do it so I'll sacrifice myself.

"I am your king."
"Well I didn't vote for you."
"You don't vote for kings."
"Well how'd you become king then?"
"The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king."
"Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 03:43 PM:

Brave man, Serge. A king in your own way.

#40 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 04:37 PM:

Hail to the king, baby.

#41 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 04:39 PM:

A sidenote on the importance of myths: one of my colleagues mentioned a month or so back that the upper echelons of the Catholic church lost her "when they took St. Christopher off the calendar. I know he was a myth, but he was a *good* myth."

#42 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 06:15 PM:

You look at the British monarchy, and you see them doing things that you could never imagine a politician doing.

We have a Prince flying air-sea rescue helicopters.

I don't know if YouTube lets mere Americans see this one, but who else could get away with being the world's oldest Bond Girl.

#43 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 07:15 PM:

Wasn't Harun al-Rashid one of the rulers of whom the walking-in-disguise-among-the-people stories were told? Or am I mixing him up with someone else?

I've certainly heard stories about going to the Tsar for justice.

#44 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:45 PM:

This thread reminds me of one of Gene Wolfe's great stories, "Westwind", in which the king *does* know, but of course there's more to it than that.

#45 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 09:47 PM:

I'm not sure how to categorize FDR either, but I think he was consciously cultivating "if only the king knew" with the Fireside Chats, setting himself up as the king who did know. (Which I think was a great comfort to many, I'm not trying to cast it as a cynical move, just a conscious one.)

An FDR oddity that's always captured my attention: he kept on his desk an image of his wife, not a photo such as you might see in any office or cubicle, or even a portrait, but a bronze bust. I think there is some connection between his obvious non-populist aristocratic character and his defying the traditional two-term limit to reign until his death. Obviously that a very great deal to do with what he did in his first two terms and what the country was facing at the end of those eight years, but I do think it would have been a little tougher for an "everyman" president, even in the same situation and with the same accomplishments.

#46 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:04 PM:

Devin #45: FDR also had the active concealment of his disability, which was more-or-less trying to avoid invoking a Fisher King type response.

#47 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 10:38 PM:

Steve with a book @ 32

One of the traditional questions asked of head-injury patients is Who Is The Prime Minister? It is said that this question had become diagnostically useless by the late 1980s. Maggie had been PM for so long, and with such intensity, that a patient's brain could be wrecked beyond hope of survival, yet they'd still remember who the PM was.

Which reminds me of a story I'll tell on my mother (although I'm not certain it happened to her, but that doesn't matter). During that interesting period between the 2000 US presidential election and the inauguration of Bush II, my mother had a minor bicycle accident that knocked her unconscious. The medical responders of course asked her the standard questions to determine level of conscious awareness. When they got to "Who's the president of the United States?" her response was something like, "That's what we'd all like to know." They judged her to be of sound mind.

On the original topic: I've always been very fond of the "catalyst" style of literary protagonist. The one who makes good and worthwhile things happen around them, not through deliberate action, but by (sometimes accidentally) inspiring those around them to behave and act differently. Which makes it unsurprising that one of the continuing protagonists in my current works-in-progress is just that sort of character. I find the type more believable than a character who tries (or succeeds) in changing the world by deliberate intent.

#48 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:11 PM:

abi @ 0

I think where I diverge from your analysis is in the statement "because the True Monarch is a fairy tale, no more real than its cousin-myth of the Philosopher’s Stone."

We lack leaders right now with that useful pairing of leadership, integrity and vision. But I think defining it as a myth lets our current leadership far to easily off the hook. Look at how many of our modern legends lived up to those values - Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu... I have my political favorites as well, but those feel a little more partisan, I freely admit.

I do not think it is impossible to achieve meaningful reform, even from within the system. I think it is difficult, and I think that there are very powerful interests who have spent a lot of time, money and influence to make it more difficult. I agree, I wish the Catholic Church would start moving forward in time again, and I don't think this hierarchy can bring that.

But it's not okay that the people in charge are uniformly out of touch or corrupt. They've settled for not being their best selves, and the people they govern have a right to demand better. Change won't happen overnight, but we have had better and I think we can reclaim our leadership to a reasonab.

#49 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:13 PM:

.... to a reasonable extent.


#50 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:35 PM:

Not actually on topic, but: it happens that only a few days ago I met another movie with an inspiring True Monarch: Mirror, Mirror, which I watched solely on the basis of Netflix recommending it to me.

It was entertaining (though I skipped most of the Evil Queen’s tiresome-after-the-first-minute excesses) but not especially deep, I thought.

#51 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2013, 11:41 PM:

Rowling's A Casual Vacancy is about the inverse-- what happens when the virtuous leader dies and there's no replacement.

#52 ::: Lylassandra ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 01:20 AM:

I am reminded of the day I walked in and my brother was watching the film Coach Carter. He was at a really low, bratty stage of the teens at the time, blowing off his homework, refusing to do anything to help out, all that sort of thing. And we ended up having the most interesting conversation about how he wished he had a coach like the one in the movie-- one who would make him do his homework. One who would inspire him to be his better self. A True Coach. It's amazing how deeply sunk into our psyches that dream is.

(I'm pleased to say that he's now the model of what a college kid should be. At some point, he figured out how to be his own coach.)

#53 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 01:22 AM:

So I'm sitting here, in Silicon Valley, having thought rather a lot about the various large companies around here and their character recently.

If Steve Jobs wasn't a True King in legend, I don't think there are any. I hear people talk about Sergei Brin and Larry Page the same way, though more quietly.

For that matter, I think there was a lot of that in the responses to Marissa Meyer's recent ascension to lead a rather beleaguered Yahoo!, and that may well have had a role in the responses to her recently-leaked "no telecommuters" memo.

#54 ::: Brooks Moses is gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 01:24 AM:

For I have mentioned the Large Purple Search Company With Punctuation In Its Name, and followed it with a comma. Perhaps the gnomes would like a silicon wafer?

[It was indeed an exclamation point followed by a comma. Bizarre punctuation is a hallmark of spam. Boorix Cueam, Duty Gnome]

#55 ::: Incoherent ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 04:35 AM:

Dave Langford #3: Thank you! I read that book when I was fifteen or so and loved it, but couldn't remember the author's name or exact title. The Pomegrenade tree in the town with the weapons factory inspired my love of pomegranates, by associating them in my mind with fireworks...

Abi, how likely is it that the movie will eventually be made available in English-subtitled or -dubbed form? I.e., is there a market impetus (other than my wallet) for translated versions of Dutch-language children's films?

#56 ::: Incoherent has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 04:37 AM:

Possibly for punctuation or mentions of high-explosive fruit.

[Thank you! with an exclamation point. Common spam marker. Romano Brizz, Duty Gnome]

#57 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 06:07 AM:

KayTei @48:
I think it really depends how much you expect an alchemical transformation of people—something they don't work for at all—and how much you count inspiration for an inner change.

The myth itself (like many myths) is kinda squishy and messy around the edges. The hypothetical people on the ice in Friesland, watching Meneer van Buren* be crowned and throwing their Unox freebie knitted caps in the air, want to already be not so tired, and not so greedy and not so callous.

People like King, Tutu and Gandhi don't work like that. Their actions and examples can persuade people to do the work to become better, but one doesn't get there just by being in their presence or in their kingdom. Each individual person still has to do the hard work in their own heart, and make the right choices in their own life.

Incoherent @55:
I've Googled around a bit, and not found any information about English-language releases of the film, nor even available English subtitles (which would be much more likely than dubbing). Listings for the DVD don't show any subtitles at all.

* van Buren, by the way, translates as "of his neighbors": a man of the people

#58 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 08:34 AM:

Lylassandra #52: how he wished he had a coach like the one in the movie-- one who would make him do his homework.

That would be "coach as father figure". And yes, kids learn to take responsibility (or not) in large part by internalizing parental "commands" and behavior, where "parental" includes far more than blood-parents. That's part of the mechanics behind Hillary Clinton's saw about "it takes a village to raise a child" -- when the community is fragmented¹ so the kids can't seek out that sort of model, they're stuck with the "official" parentals, who may not be up to the task. But... there are also "synthetic parent figures": The True King, as a representative of God, is also a representation of "the ultimate parent". Self-responsibility is hard -- even well-grown adults can feel the urge to let someone else "be the parent". And that's also the source of that "all will be well again" -- psychologically, part of the normal² childhood image of the parent is that they "make everything better".

abi #57 People like King, Tutu and Gandhi don't work like that.

Note that none of those people were actually rulers... they were religious leaders!³ Remember what I said above: the most elemental definition of magic is, "How the *** did they do that?" But... that's a definition from ignorance! The True King myth and its relatives don't deal with the actual tradeoffs and limitations of actually running things. In part, "True King" is a survival of the conflation of kingship and priesthood/sainthood -- a king who is inspirational in the way we want a priest or saint to be.

¹ q.v. "stranger danger" as a social norm, segregation of age ranges.
² That is, abuse and horrific dysfunction notwithstanding.
³ Though Ghandi did found a dynasty, I think he was ultimately a religious leader like the other two.

#59 ::: Dave Harmon has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 08:35 AM:

dunno why

[Three-or-more spaces in a row. Brio Neet, Duty Gnome]

#60 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 08:39 AM:

HelenS @43 said: I've certainly heard stories about going to the Tsar for justice.

Which is actually A Thing in current modern Chinese law. Technically, any Chinese citizen can go to the capital and sit in line to bring their problems directly to the Emperor -- I mean, the governing council.

And given the current trends involving certain districts being run as fiefdoms by extremely corrupt Communist Party hacks, some fairly epic numbers of people are DOING it. The Party powerful find this embarrassing, as they have no intention of talking to the petitioners, so those who have come to petition are regularly harassed and beaten by, shall we say, out-of-uniform Party enforcers/secret police. And encouraged to Go Back To The Countryside, Hicks ...

#61 ::: between4walls ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 11:09 AM:

Gandhi didn't found a dynasty- the current political Gandhis are actually descended from Nehru, whose daughter married a guy called Feroze Gandhi, who had no relation to Gandhi himself.

#62 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 12:38 PM:

Speaking of coaches as father figures, in American Teen Sex Comedies, from Porky's to American Pie, however ineffectual or absent the Horny Teen's actual father may be, the coach always speaks true.

#63 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 12:50 PM:

Dave Harmon #58:

Mohandas Gandhi was a leader of a secular political party, the Indian National Congress, who organised mass actions of civil disobedience intended to force the colonial authorities to end their rule of India. How this makes him a religious, as opposed to political, leader I do not know. The man who killed him did so because he was seen as insufficiently Hindu (since Gandhi had opposed the Partition of 1948 and had wanted reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus).

#64 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 02:14 PM:

Jim Macdonald@62: this made me think of the nice subversion of this in Home Movies, where Coach McGuirk's advice to Brendon (whose father is absent) is consistently and hilariously terrible.

#65 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 04:11 PM:

between4walls #61: I had not known that! Thanks for telling me... but looking up Feroze, I still suspect his name made a difference in the fortunes of his family -- especially since he adopted it from his mothers side and respelled it to match the Mahatma's.

Fragano Ledgister #63: I would call Ghandi's politics not secular, but ecumenical. His appeal and power always derived from moral arguments and moral standing, and his tactics of non-violence underlined that. His primary title was a religious one. He also undertook various Hindu privations (including, late, a vow of chastity). He was killed by an extremist Hindu, who resented his attempts to establish peace between Hindus and Muslims. And locally, my bookstore has always shelved his books in the religious section, right next to Confucius and in with the Hindu, Muslim, and New Age stuff (the Buddhists got their own section when my boss picked up a big collection of Buddhist and Tibetan books).

#66 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 04:44 PM:

Dave Harmon #65: Whatever Gandhi's religious views and practices, he was the leader of a secular political party committed to the independence of India. That's my point. That makes him a political rather than a religious leader.

The use of non-violence as a tactic does not make a leader a religious figure. Nelson Mandela, for example, in Long Walk to Freedom is very clear that non-violence was a tactic.

#67 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 06:45 PM:

Dave Harmon @ #58 et seq.: Mohandas Gandhi founded no dynasty; Indira was not related to him.

Also, see "Spelling Reference" below.

#68 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 08:26 PM:

Over at Obsidian Wings Doctor Science has an interesting discussion of the Grand Vizier problem, especially with its implications for the Papacy.

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 08:52 PM:

It often seems to me that the kind of people we put in power (and even more so, the kind of people our media gives megaphones) do their best to make those who follow or listen to them *worse* people instead of better. Stirring up fear and hate is a standard part of the script for a modern politician. And from that flow justifications for every power grab (he's doing it to Keep Us Safe) and abuse (those bastards deserve it, whatever it is).

And because that's what pays off, we get more of it.

#70 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 09:45 PM:

Thank you for a very interesting and thought-provoking post, Abi.

For anyone else who, like me, would like to watch Koning van Katoren in an English-language release, be advised that according to the English title is/will be To Be King.

From Famous Dave's comment, this looks like another story I'd prefer to see on film before reading it, as the movie version is likely to be considerably shallower than the book.

#71 ::: Wirelizard ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2013, 11:32 PM:

I've been doing a lot of reading on the Russian Civil War in the last year or so, and I'm currently grinding my way through Orlando Figes' well written but massive "A People's Tragedy", and it's full of "if only the Czar knew" as a living trope in Russian peasant culture, which transmuted into "if only Lenin knew" during the early stages of Bolshevik rule.

For that matter, Figes paints the last Czar as suffering from an inverted version of this mythology, wherein Nicholas II thought that if only he could move past his obstructive bureaucrats and politicians and talk directly to "his people", all would be well again.

#72 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 12:02 AM:

"I am torn between curiosity and dread to hear (what we will ever hear of) why he really stepped down."

Honestly, most of the theologians I've seen who've opined on the subject have pointed out two things: 1. In recent pictures, he looks old—much older than he did even half a year ago. He's getting frail and he recognizes that. 2. He was present during JPII's long decline, and it's quite probable he developed a deep distaste for the sort of machinations that happen when the leader of a group isn't strong enough to do the leading.

Oh, and 3. He's an introvert. The Papacy is a very public role nowadays and about as introvert-draining as you might expect.

So the obvious reading has a lot of weight to support it—he never wanted the position, he thinks it's a bad idea to remain in charge while his health is failing (especially as the "rudderless ship" Vatican was so recent), and he wants to go lock himself in a room for a while and just read.

#73 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 12:20 AM:

abi @ 57

Yes, I see that.

Dave @ 65

I am a little uncomfortable with what looks like the automatic conflation of morality with religion. Someone can be a moral leader, or even lead very moral causes, without being a religious leader, even if they are very religious in their own lives. I think you have to take both means and motive into account, and I think the emphasis of Gandhi's actions was more focused on secular justice than the divine. It's why I think of those people as secular leaders, rather than religious leaders.

A trivial point on your @ 58 - I did say that I also have some specific national leaders in mind in my earlier post, but I think that discussion is distractingly politicized - As a liberal, I would expect to lionize different leaders than a conservative would, but I wasn't sure that was really a constructive direction to take this discussion.

#74 ::: duckbunny has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 04:00 AM:

There are people who glow.

They are the people who redefine the centre of a room, whose chosen topics become the conversation, whose decisions become the group plan without argument. The people you could follow home, just because you forget to ever take a different road. The people you want to grow up to be.

Captain Carrot glows. I suspect Vimes does too, and the Lancre witches. The True Monarch, in all their forms, glows.

I am blessed to know several glowing people. One of them expressed approval of one of my LARP characters last week, and I still feel ten feet tall. And nothing, nothing is so motivating to ones own leadership than a glowing underling.

"Good at being obeyed" is not a bad summary. I have quietly stopped contact with former friend, because he glows, and I forget to be myself around him. The shine blurs my edges. The True King is a terrible danger if he isn't wise enough to do good.

#75 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 04:01 AM:

B Durbin @72:

If he'd stepped down during Ordinary Time, sometime after Easter, I'd be entirely persuaded by that theory. Because he is old, and getting frailer.

But he stepped down just before Lent, throwing the church into disarray. Unless the Conclave has kinda-sorta already figured out whom they want to elect, we won't have a pope for Easter.

I don't know. Maybe he realized that poping Easter was going to be too great a strain this year. It's just some pretty awkward timing for a long-term decision.

#76 ::: duckbunny has not been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 04:01 AM:

He has merely forgotten to change his name back. Sorry.

#77 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 05:04 AM:

abi @75, I can quite believe that something unexpected has happened to speed the Pope's abdication. The reasons seem sound, but the timing is odd. There are some signs of long-term thought, and one very obvious possibility is a medical incident has affected the timetable. Old people can unexpectedly falter, in a way that isn't obvious from a distance.

But would it be too cynical to think he might have just been jumping the gun on the Vatican rumour-mill, and he is quietly chuckling at what he sees.

#78 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 05:32 AM:

it's full of "if only the Czar knew" as a living trope in Russian peasant culture, which transmuted into "if only Lenin knew" during the early stages of Bolshevik rule.

"If only the Emperor knew" is still a living trope in Chinese culture. Beijing sees thousands of petitioners every month, come to complain about injustice or corruption in their home districts or provinces.

Most of them are rounded up at the bus station by thugs employed by their home district or province governments, taken to "black prisons" - illegal, but permitted by central government - beaten up, and put on the bus back home again.

#79 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 08:38 AM:

"If only the Emperor knew"

He had Mito Komon for that.

#80 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 10:16 AM:

We live in an age of the world, and in a large part of the world, that has been disenchanted of the glamour of kingship. It isn't just that people ought to be able to join together to rule the res publica for themselves, a large number of people actively oppose the very idea of domination however it is articulated.

That someone can be magister, teacher of a pupil, we can accept. That a person can ascend to be first citizen of the republic for a stated length of time, and then abandon the office and retire to ordinary citizenship, we can and o accept. That someone can be dominus, master of a slave; that we reject. Kingship, except in the modern, evolved, and highly constrained conditions of a constitutional monarchy,* is domination. That, increasingly we do not accept.

I find myself drawn to a conception of civic republicanism that emphasises liberty as non-domination. That none shall dominate, that justice involves more than non-interference, but an active guarantee of equality for all strikes me as essential in ensuring that the world is made more human. I am tired of living in a world where people can get away with asserting that corporations are people, with assuming that differences in complexion, colour, genitalia, sexual orientation, or gender identity somehow make you more or less human. Le monde va changer de base, nous ne sommes rien; soyons tout.

* A constitutional monarchy is a republic with a monarch symbolising the unity of the state. A monarch who thinks otherwise learns that the power lies elsewhere (Charles I and James II found that out).

#81 ::: Fragano Ledgister hath once more been Gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 10:19 AM:

I know not why. I have some herbal tisane with which to propitiate their Lownesses.

And to quote the great Sam Beckett: Uptherepublic!

#82 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 10:36 AM:

"It's good to be the King."
- Mel Brooks

#83 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 11:18 AM:

re 75: I suspect you are overestimating the disarray. And it should be kept in mind that no conclave since 1831 has lasted a week; two to three days is typical. Benedict's one day conclave was unusually short, but even if they wait until the 20th to start, they'll likely have a pope before Palm Sunday. And furthermore, there is a strong symbolic message in forcing the church into a conclave during lent. This is supposed to be an introspective, penitential season, and a churchman may understand that Benedict wishes careful consideration of the church's faults, and not the sort of triumphal mood that an Easter conclave would engender.

As to myth-making, I find the contrast between that surrounding the last two popes quite striking. JP II evoked a hagiography which preceded his death and which then began to crumble in the face of the sexual abuse revelations. Ratzinger by contrast came into office well-known: well-hated by his enemies and well-loved by those who hoped for traditionalist reform. By my observation both of these camps got just enough to justify maintaining their initial presumptions about his papacy-to-be to allow them to more or less disregard anything he actually did (or more commonly, didn't do) that didn't fit their fantasy pope.

The papacy is not a monarchy, and really never was. But there are certainly camps who wish it were so. Plenty of Catholics, of course, want the True Pope to step into St. Peter's shoes, seize the clerical tiller, and turn the Ship of Church onto the Course of Righteousness. The real Catholic Church doesn't work anything like that way, and is not so easily turned; and when it does turn, it does not move as one. Meanwhile anti-Catholics also wanted Pope-King Benedict XVI, because it more easily justified damning him as a tyrant when the church did not swing about according to the winds of secular change. Both of these pictures seem to be immune to the reality of the man.

#84 ::: Mishalak ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 12:24 PM:

The comment about political dynasty regarding Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made me go look up what actually happened to his children and grandchildren. I feared the sort of fate in store for the descendants of Abraham Lincoln, children wounded by his fame and living difficult lives.

Turns out that he has many, many descendants. Including one, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was a governor of an Indian state. A much more common story seems to be university professor. Two of whom apparently teach here in the United States.

#85 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 12:27 PM:

Hm, Miles Vorkosigan as One True King in training? There's an element of "If Only the Czar Knew" in his adventure in "The Mountains of Mourning," and that's sort of the whole point of being an Auditor, really. And there's the whole "if he can do that, then I can do this" way he affects people and brings out the best in them. But it's complicated by the fact the he acknowledges Gregor as HIS one true king, and I would say Aral fills this role as well. Perhaps there's a bit of Carrot in Miles's character. (He IS tall for a dwarf; interpret that as you will.)

#86 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 12:33 PM:

C. Wingate @ 83 - Until the creation of Italy, the papacy was as much a monarchy as any other monarchy. Which is to say that there is no one thing that monarchy means other than the investment of executive authority, usually in heavy negotiation/consultation with other elite forces, in a single individual. And even those terms are easily disposed when one examines symbolic kingship as in modern England or late Merovingian France.

Papal monarchy in the medieval sense was also very real, though I generally judge it disastrous for the long-term interests of the Church as I see them. But you can't look at, say, Gregory IX, and not include monarch among his attributes.

Smart popes govern by consensus of the elites, and no pope who makes it to the top hasn't learned to work that system. But there is real power on the Throne of St. Peter.

#87 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 02:48 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @11: A little more about that sort of leadership-- Stone Soup

That's a different variant of the story than the one I grew up with. In the one I'm familiar with (which, incidentally, is "Soup on a Nail," since the magic element is an old nail that Our Hero carries with him), a vagrant travels from village to village in the depths of a hard winter.

He begs a warm place to sleep, in return for making a cauldron of soup from his "magic nail." Caldron, water, and fire are produced. After the "soup" bubbles away for a while, he tastes it, smacks his lips, murmurs with pleasure, but says, "It'd be so much better with some onion." Of the now assembled villagers, one remembers he has an old shriveled onion. He runs and gets it. It is chopped up and added to the "soup."

"Ah, maybe a little carrot...." Another villager finds a couple of carrots in his root cellar.

And so on, until a right proper stew is assembled, and all of the villagers have the first real meal they've had in ages—all from bits and pieces that each were regarded as useless debris.

At the end of the meal, and after a warm night's sleep, the wanderer retrieves his nail and heads on to the next village.

Obvious lessons, such as kindness to strangers, we have more abundance when we share, and so on.

Mike @24: that sounds strikingly similar to Metta Meditation, described as "a strong wish for the happiness of others."

And, of course, it's entirely driven by selfish "enlightened self-interest." Having empirically observed the whole kharma threefold-return thing, I have a very personal investment in having the energy I put out be as happy and joyous as I can manage because, you know, angry-grumpy is unpleasant, and life is too short, ya know?

(Also, this is a spiritual dimension of customer service. In addition to whatever positive ripples I can generate with my own attitude, part of my job is to shield the people "behind me" from incoming bad vibes as well. And also to damp those bad vibes such that not only does the negative energy not propagate, but sometimes it even gets transmuted into happier, more humorous energy.)

John A Arkansawyer @27: I am so hoping this movie does well enough to get dubbed into English

I'm hoping for a subtitled version, myself. I've searched on Netflix with the hope of prodding them into licensing it. I'll try To Be King next.

Janet Brennan Croft @85: Yeah, Miles's storyline came to mind for me, as well.


Well, the fairly obvious question comes to mind: what is it about the True King (whether it be conduct, personality, values, etc.) that brings out the best in people?

#88 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 05:48 PM:

Abi, I'm a bit more cynical about your first monarchy than you seem to be. I suspect that the Council of Cardinals will choose the candidate that makes the most business sense to them. After all, these are the people responsible for making sure the organization survives for another millennium.

Many years ago, I was asked to be the secretary to a pastoral vicariate (the interface between the bishop and the individual parishes.) Time after time, I saw the questions and requests of the parishioners brushed aside in favor of promoting the politics of religion. That paired with hearing stories about various local priest hiding money from the Bishops so they could afford to meet the daily spiritual needs of their parishioners in the long term. (Church repair or construction, cemetery maintenance, etc. and the preference that the monies for this be borrowed from the church's bank and not paid for by other means of independent fundraising.)

The only reason I haven't left the religion I was raised in is because many of the priest are actually rebellious either openly or subversively. They put the needs of the people in their care before the politics of the organization.

#89 ::: Dave Crisp ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 06:08 PM:

David@86 / C. Wingate@83: indeed, the Pope's insistence on remaining a temporal monarch after the unification of Italy is the entire reason that the Vatican even exists as an independent state.

IIRC, Victor Emmanuel actually offered to let Pius IX keep the whole of the Borgo and Trastevere - effectively everything inside the medieval walls on the west bank of the Tiber, from Castel Sant'Angelo in an arc round the back of the modern Vatican and then south, and eventually hooking up with the river again opposite Monte Testaccio, over 20 times the area they eventually got - but the substantial "civillian" population of those areas said "no" and threatened to riot. At which point Pius threw his toys out of the pram and declared himself imprisoned in the Vatican. Which remained the state of affairs for over 50 years.

#90 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 06:19 PM:

I think Stone Soup is the pagan version of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. (This analogy requires the belief that what Jesus did was get everyone to bring out what they had and share it. If you prefer an actual multiplication of the physical substance of the foods in question, I will not contest you.)

#91 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 08:00 PM:

abi, #75: The discussion linked by fidelio @68 presents an extremely plausible scenario. Also noteworthy is the third comment down, which ends:

So, if I were a pope who would be abdicating against the wishes of the curia, I would use the procedure Benedict XVI used. He made it impossible to imprison him under the guise of a medical emergency to preserve the power of some grand vizier. (emphasis mine)

Maybe I'm just paranoid, but that argument sounds frighteningly plausible.

Fragano, #86: I am tired of living in a world where people can get away with asserting that corporations are people, with assuming that differences in complexion, colour, genitalia, sexual orientation, or gender identity somehow make you more or less human.

QFT. So say we all!

Jacque, #87: what is it about the True King (whether it be conduct, personality, values, etc.) that brings out the best in people?

I suspect that a large part of it is "he/she expects them to be their best, and they live up to it rather than be a disappointment". Charisma is an important element. So is what the charismatic leader encourages people to do; you can be extremely charismatic and use that power for evil ends.

#92 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 09:04 PM:

I think that expecting people to be their best and answering any other result with disappointment rather than wrath is part of it. Some of it is also being your best, modeling how to handle it, and modeling how to handle disappointment. There's a major element of, "I can trust this person to take care of me, so I can go out on a limb to take care of others." Some of it is making your actions independent of others', rather than contingent on them, so no one feels forced into it but sees that yes, this little thing helps. Some of it is the parable of the starfish. Some of it is giving directions and asking questions without appearing unsure that this will work.

Some of it, from where I stand, is retaining a sort of unearthly calm in the face of screaming violent people. I can do that on good days. Today was an okay day and I got whacked twice in the face. But I kept going, I did not minimize the impact on the class, I did not get angry (okay, I could have been less flappable), I did not abandon anyone.

So now a class has an example that when another student whacks you in the face, you handle the situation safely and calmly. You don't escalate. You ask for help, you get help, the situation is resolved, and it's icepacks all 'round. And then it works out fine.

#93 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2013, 11:24 PM:

fidelio at 68: thanks for that link. Very thoughtful. Very plausible.

#94 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2013, 09:33 AM:

re 68/91: I think most everyone who isn't wedded to the "hidden scandal" theory sees some version of the "grand vizier" theory. The question is whether one feels one must spin it positively or negatively, because the hidden assumption in the version linked to that there was and is no thought towards the health of the institution. The positive version of the same story is that JP II's latter years were very hard on the church, in part because Ratzinger's ability to deal with the problems was severely hampered by the reality that he could not give the appearance of seizing the reins on the runaway clerisy, and that therefore there wasn't as much control as was needed, regardless of who exercised it. (I would note that the Paul VI/JP I transition had the same issues; there just wasn't the scandal looming over them to put them in the news.) What one person interprets as a sort of self-protection, another can see as a resolve to force this out in the open by eliminating the need for this sort of regency.

#95 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2013, 10:25 AM:

I think another thing to consider when evaluating the end of Benedict XVI's papacy is the personality of the man involved. As was noted above, he's an introvert forced into a position which requires extensive, if not constant personal display, and he's also an elderly man who lacks the strength and energy necessary to oversee the people working for him effectively. I suspect he's also the sort of person who is incapable of going against authority; that's probably one of the reason he was so unsettled by the student demonstrations of the late 1960s/early 1970s. It's also why he was unable to go against JPII's requirements until the very end of that papacy; I've heard that he tried more than once to get out of being in charge of the Community of Faith and Doctrine*, but stuck with it because JPII wasn't willing to let him go (perhaps because he could count on Ratzinger to do exactly what he was told without conniving, unlike many other members of teh Vatican bureaucracy.) In that office, he handled things the way he was told to handle them, and not necessarily the way they needed to be handled, because he wasn't able to do otherwise--he would be obedient, whatever reservations he might have about the wisdom of what was being done.)

If he has enough insight into his own nature, he knows he's not the man to fix any of the things that need to be fixed even if he were younger and in better health, and that they need fixing before anything gets any worse. He may realize these fixes are going to be too radical for him to take and follow through with. He's done the single most daring thing he's ever done in his life in abdicating (moving against Marcial Maciel while JPII was still among the living may have been the second most daring), and I believe it came both from a desire to see things get no worse, and a painful understanding that if he stayed, he could do nothing whatsoever to make them better--and quite possibly an awareness of evils resulting from the things he had not been strong-willed enough to avoid doing while JPII was alive and giving effective orders.

For my part, I see much of his professional life since he became an archbishop as a tragic slide into error and wrongdoing, because he was not strong enough to say No to either authority figures or the tyrannical law of That's the Way Things Are and We Can't Change Them, even though he knew, or at least suspected that he ought to. Perhaps he's striving for redemption now.

*Cue the Inquisition routine from Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I. Including the synchronized-swimming nuns.

#96 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2013, 11:30 AM:

I suspect the mythology surrounding good kings (and bad ones, and "if only the Czar knew", and so on) is bound up with the difficulty of understanding large organizations. The Catholic Church or the Russian government in the days of the Czar, or for that matter the US government, is a huge and unwieldy organization, with a great many levels of bureaucracy between the guy at the top and the people making decisions locally. A lot of the job of a monarch or president is to become the public face of that vast, unwieldy organization. (The same is true of the CEO of a big company.)

Now, big organizations are nothing like individual humans. It's a huge mental error to think about them like they are. And yet, it's also quite natural to personify organizations, to talk about what the Church hierarchy wants, or the US government believes. A king or president with significant power gives that organization not only a face, but a person who can in principle be held to account for the organization's actions. And that's true, even when the guy at the top has a lot less power in practice than it looks like, when (say) the president knows that in a power struggle with the intelligence services, he will lose, or the pope fears that a serious attempt to quickly purge the Church hierarchy of everyone involved in the pedophilia coverups will destroy the Church[1]. It's true even when the guy at the top is a pure figurehead who has little knowledge or control of what's going on. It's true when (as is usual) the guy at the top has the power to correct any individual wrong happening at ground level, but neither the knowledge nor the time to correct very many. And so on.

[1] I strongly suspect that one driver wrt the Church hierarchy and its coverups is the large number of closeted gay men in the priesthood, and in the hierarchy. That creates enormous opportunities for blackmail and cover-me-or-I'll-expose-you, and probably also some opportunities for ambiguity dealing with pedophilia cases involving teenaged boys. (Should this be handled as a routine gay sex scandal in the church, or as a serious crime? Bearing in mind that they guy I'm handling can out me and I'll have to leave the Church hierarchy that's been my home and powerbase for my whole adult life.)

#97 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 03:33 AM:

There is an interesting commentary on the Pope as CEO on the BBC website, though I think the piece has flaws.

1) It's trying to apply Corporatist management thinking to the Church, with a few vague handwaves about the best of modern business management*.

2) The author is a member of Opus Dei, which rings an alarm bell for me. But am I misled by conspiracy theories?

3) While the guy is an assistant professor of ethics, he seems to be ignoring the blatant, and sinful, greed expected of the modern CEO.

So, I think he's right that the Church needs a different sort of Pope, who can get something done to clean up the management side. But the model he puts forward, behind a veneer of sometimes strained comparisons, seems wrong.

I'm maybe crazy, but does the organisation of the Church have to be that of a modern business, a fresco on the plaster of MBA-speak? It's not something whose success is defined by money, though the money still matters. It's arguable that the organisation of the Church is dependent on the flow of information, and that implies to me that the management reforms are more to do with cybernetics than with economics.

[*] The Holy Trinity as the board of directors? The communicants of the Church as shareholders? Does that make a Cardinal Archbishop the equivalent of a pension-fund manager? And what is the MBA-equivalent of Schism or an Antipope? Ultimately, Corporatism is dependent on at least the illusion of a market, and what can the Church buy and sell?

#98 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 07:55 AM:

Dave Bell@97 what can the Church buy and sell?

"This is Holland Manners, Wolfram and Hart."

"Yes, of course we can set up the soul-trading exchange for you. Would this be whole souls or will you also be dealing in portions? We also can handle soul loans."


#99 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 09:27 AM:

Dave Bell @97: Yes, but it is a truth generally acknowledged (by holders of MBAs) that Modern Corporate Management Practices are the best metaphor for ANYTHING. Possibly up to and including sports.

I watched my immediate boss go through schooling for it on the side while she was working during the days, and her entire demeanor and the way she spoke changed disturbingly. It was kind of like watching someone get involved in a cult, only they didn't want to change where she slept or take ALL her money.

#100 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 09:52 AM:

Dave Bell @ #97: what can the Church buy and sell?

They had some ideas about that back in the days of Pope Leo X, and we all know what that led to...

#101 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 10:53 AM:

Dave B., #97: Michael @98 is writing humorously, but he's onto something. The Church is in the business of selling "salvation", which can also be seen as buying souls; it's just not always addressed as directly as it is in a retail business. But there are some very strong similarities in the business model.

And here we start edging close to the rant about how most modern churches are very definitely businesses, complete with advertising budgets and lobbyists, and all the side-issues that entails.

#102 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 11:13 AM:

Dave Bell #97: It's worth noting that the Catholic Church is the second-oldest organization in the world, and the oldest (the Icelandic AlThing) isn't a corporation either.

#103 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 12:20 PM:

Dave Harmon @ 102

I'm a bit confused by the implication in your statement that the Icelandic Althing is an older organization than the Catholic Church. Are you using some specific definition of the Catholic Church that places its starting date after the colonization of Iceland?

#104 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 02:13 PM:

I know there are various break points possible within the history of the Catholic Church. Looking at the history of the Althing, you could argue for a break starting in the 14th century, and there is an explicit break in its existence from 1800 to 1844.

There is an historical lineage, but in both cases it feels a little like confusing a Kingdom with a King. The current entity is not the original entity. And was Iceland the Once and Future Republic from 1292 to 1944?

#105 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 04:18 PM:

Disclaimer: Escaped former Catholic here. That said...

from albatross @96 " or the pope fears that a serious attempt to quickly purge the Church hierarchy of everyone involved in the pedophilia coverups will destroy the Church."

If the core Catholic beliefs are indeed the truth the Church claims them to be, then there is no way that any action to clean up the hierarchy, however scorched it may leave the earth, could possibly destroy the Church. To take the possibility seriously is to doubt the very reason for the Church's existence in the first place.

One might even argue that the clean-up would be a good thing from this perspective (as well as the moral/ethical aspect). If the Church is what it claims to be, then Christ will ensure that His Church survives; if not, then let it go.

J Homes.

#106 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 05:24 PM:

J Homes, #105: Good point -- that's like saying that Bank X is "too big to fail".

#107 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 07:28 PM:

J Homes:

Are you posing a real question, or scoring a point?

#108 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 08:57 PM:

Heather Rose Jones #103: Yes, I was taking it as a direct continuation of the Althing from pagan times. As Dave Bell #104 points out, this is an arguable point.

#109 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2013, 09:41 PM:

albatross @107

It's a comment rather than a question, but a serious comment.

I have my own opinion as to the validity of the Church's claims, which may differ from yours. But I am quite serious in what those claims would imply for the Church's ability to survive a house-cleansing. Anyone who thinks that the RCC is Christ's Church should expect it to be strengthened rather than destroyed by cleaning out the corruption.

J Homes.

J Homes

#110 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2013, 07:30 PM:

Dave Harmon, I assume by "direct continuation of the Althing from pagan times", you're just referring to the original Icelandic Althing founded in 930, or are you thinking of it as a continuation of previous mainland Thingsi? The Vikings settled there in 874, but took a while to set up the Althing. Iceland became mostly Christian in ~1000. (There were Irish monks on the island before 874, maybe to the 770s, and there's some debate about whether they'd left before the Vikings came.)

I might accept an argument that the occasional interruptions in operation (like the 1799-1844 one) don't count, but I'd count the Icelandic Althing as separate from mainland predecessors. So they may be older than the Franciscans, but not the Benedictines, much less the Roman papacy.

#111 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2013, 07:39 PM:

Bill Stewart #110: I was working from something I'd seen many years ago (which I remember as describing the Althing as older), rather than from detailed knowledge. It's starting to sound more and more like that was a factoid.

#112 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2013, 12:22 AM:

On the subject of reform, I hope the Catholic Church takes the advice of Gamaliel at Acts 5:38. And on the child abuse issue, that of Peter, who is, I understand, the man whose successor they take to be electing even now: "What made you think of doing this? You have lied not to men, but to God."

And forget about the effect on the Church.

#113 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2013, 11:38 PM:

#98 Michael I: "Yes, of course we can set up the soul-trading exchange for you. Would this be whole souls or will you also be dealing in portions? We also can handle soul loans."

Soul tranches, soul derivatives. Soul bonds. The Gaussian copula of the soul.

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