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.