John Stewart of The Daily Show may be as close as America comes to having an official court jester. Shakespearean plays like King Lear and Twelfth Night teach us that a jester’s job is to keep our priorities straight, and on Friday Stewart once again performed that role. While Syria, Egypt, Israel, and other countries in the Middle East are melting down, he pointed out the news media have been obsessing over . . . Kate Middleton’s pregnancy.
Of course, Stewart himself then proceeded to delve into the pregnancy, starting with a literary allusion in The Sun’s headline: Kate’s Expectation.
If we’re going to start making pregnancy puns based on literature, why stop there, Stewart asked. He then provided some literary headlines of his own. I offer them up as a comic prelude before I delve into what literature teaches us about this obsession with royal birth:
John Stewart’s Royal Pregnancy Headlines:
Portrait of a Fetus as a Young Man
The Prince in the Hopper
And (you may want to cover your eyes for this one)
Tale of Sore Titties
Which he said begins with the line,
It was the breast of times . . .
Okay, on to more serious matters. A fixation on monarchy has been on my mind recently because students in my British Fantasy course have been exploring the “return of the king” trope in 20th century works. Gabriel Young’s essay on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Katie Grein’s essay on T. H. White’s Once and Future King both provided insight into why, even in constitutional democracies, we remain interested in future heirs to the throne.
Both works, appearing after World War II, reflected the cosmic upheavals underway in British society. Britain entered the 20th century as the premier world power, but by 1945, after two ruinous wars, its time as a world power was at an end. The identity shift that such change requires can be traumatic—just ask today’s GOP after the 2012 elections—and British authors found themselves thrown back into fantasy as a coping mechanism.
White drew on England’s most famous myth for his fantasy. As Katie points out, King Arthur is defeated not only by outside enemies but by his own mistakes. The optimism that marked the early days of Camelot has faded, leading to jaded ennui and the dissolution of the Arthurian monarchy.
Painful though the demise of Camelot is, however, identifying the problem as internal means that the solution can be internal as well. If England will only draw on the spirit of greatness that Arthur represents, it will find its way back.
It’s not that England in the 1940’s and 1950′s literally wanted a monarch, anymore than the English today want an heir to the British throne to rule over them. It’s more that the monarchy represents a continuity that gives people hope. A memory of England as it used to be (at least according to their fantasies) is something to hold on to.
Gabriel notes that Tolkien had, in addition to end-of-empire malaise, other fears as well. He was worried about the rise of the welfare state:
The Lord of the Rings foregrounds Tolkien’s fears of an insurgent working class empowered by the dissolution of the British empire. The fantasy constitutes his attempt to reconstruct a feudal arrangement in which a passive, humble English peasantry defers to the wisdom of benevolent rulers.
The period in which Tolkien was actively writing coincided with the twilight of the British Empire and the political ascendency of the working class. Britain reconstituted its colonial holdings following World War I, but World War II well and truly ended the colonial project. Although Winston Churchill, that imperial icon, had managed to retain power and relevance in a coalition government through his nationalist appeals in the struggle against Hitler, the Labor Party won control of Parliament in 1945. The swashbuckling wartime era of Churchill was over, subordinated to the demands of a working class concerned with economic equality, postwar reconstruction, and social welfare.
In his analysis of Lord of the Rings, Gabriel is particularly fascinated by the orcs, who he says Tolkien associates with the working class, especially the working class of the Soviet Union:
The orc soldiers could just as easily be worker drones reporting to a Party, Central Secretariat, or Manager who catalogues each item and directs it towards the Greater Good. This contributes to the image of the orcs as dehumanized subordinates to a greater plan, in much the same way that Russians were stereotyped as robotic comrades operating solely in accordance with communist directives. Indeed, Tolkien seems to have held that prejudiced view during World War II, when he admitted to “a loathing of being on any side that includes Russia… one fancies that Russia is probably ultimately far more responsible for the present crisis and choice of moment than Hitler.
Tolkien projects onto the Soviet Union his fears of change in Great Britain. Although he may uphold the British-like Aragorn over the Hitler-like Sauron or the Stalin-like Saruman, the workers appear to be taking over his own country as well. Aragorn, like Arthur, is more an ancient British ideal than any realistic political possibility:
Sauron [may fancy] himself the Lord of the Rings, but only Aragorn is the true king. The British monarchy, however, had ceded most of its power in Tolkien’s lifetime, and instead deferred to transformational prime ministers like [Labor Prime Minister] Attlee. The balance for Tolkien thus lay with the masses, who could either be selfish and tractable, like the orcs, or humble and sensible, like the hobbits. In the postwar years, Tolkien yearned for the latter, for the working and middle classes as they should be.
So when you see people getting excited about the British monarchy, remind yourself that much of it has to do with nostalgia for an idealized England that is no more. Easier to dream about a feudal past than to focus on present-day tyrants in Syria preparing to gas their subjects.