July 1, 2021

By the time that she died, even her own brother had come to see her as a figure of myth. “Of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.” Struggling, at her funeral, to articulate his sense of mingled anger and grief, the Earl Spencer reached for Ovid.

In the Metamorphoses, the greatest anthology of classical myth ever written, the Roman poet told of Actaeon, a hunter who inadvertently stumbled upon Diana as she was bathing. The goddess, outraged that a mortal had seen her naked, turned the intruder into a stag. His own hounds then pursued him, dragged him down, and tore him to pieces. “Only once the life had left his mangled flesh, so it is said, was the rage of the goddess finally slaked.”

Today Princess Diana would have turned 60. What life she might have gone on to live had she not died trying to escape the photographers who, like a pack of hounds, pursued her into the Pont de l’Alma tunnel that fateful night in Paris 24 years ago? It is impossible to know, of course. One thing, however, is clear. The car crash that killed Diana at the age of 36 brought her immortality. It transmuted her once and for all into legend. Just as the break-up of the Beatles in 1970 set the seal on their status as the ultimate icons of the 60s, so did Diana’s untimely death ensure that she would ever afterwards be remembered as the archetype of a beautiful princess.

The parabola of a story, if it is to rank as great, requires a perfect ending. The ending of Diana’s story — so surprising, so unsurprising — seemed scripted to such a flawless degree that it has generated an entire multitude of conspiracy theories. Yet the attempt to blame “dark forces” for the car crash, to pin the blame on MI6, or Prince Charles, or Prince Philip, is really only a displacement strategy. We all of us knew in our hearts, when the news came through from Paris, who the guilty people were. We — the global public, hungry for every last sensational story, every last prurient snap — were the ones who had driven her to her death. Actaeon had never intended to intrude on Diana’s privacy. We, by contrast, had no such excuse.

“And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.” It was a measure of Diana’s star quality that she could be compared at her funeral to more than one kind of goddess. Elton John, whose musical tribute to her directly preceded the Earl Spencer’s eulogy, sang lines that originally had been written to commemorate Marilyn Monroe. Everyone who listened to him perform at the funeral in Westminster Abbey knew this. Palimpsest-like, the two versions of the song co-existed. The ghost of one set of lyrics haunted the other. “Even when you died,” Elton had originally sung, “Oh the press still hounded you.”

As a superstar himself, he felt a natural sympathy for a woman plagued and tormented by journalists. Even so – unlike Diana, whom he had known well – Marilyn had been a stranger to him. He was just a kid, after all, when her candle burned out. He sang about her, not as a friend, but as a worshipper at the shrine of her celebrity, one of the numberless multitudes of her fans, a young man in the 22nd row. In 1973, when the song was recorded, Marilyn had been dead for over a decade.

She had come, in that time, to serve as the paradigm of a peculiarly modern form of immortality: the celebrity cut off in her prime. Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s long-term collaborator, had been inspired to write “Candle in the Wind” after hearing the phrase applied to Janis Joplin. Aligned at her funeral with the gods of ancient Greece, Diana was aligned as well with more recent deities: James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Jim Morrison. In death, she had come to possess many different shades of immortality.

Yet if it was, in a Christian place of worship, startling, perhaps, to be informed that Diana’s name had appeared in the heavens, and that her footsteps, like some guardian spirit of the landscape, would always fall along England’s greenest hills, that did not render Elton’s song inappropriate to its location. Diana, unlike Marilyn, had married into the world’s most celebrated royal family. The tombs of her in-laws stood everywhere in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, had been married to England. Diana had been the country’s rose. Here, then, was yet a further burnishing of her myth. The Princess of Wales was hedged about by a mystique that did not derive solely from fairy stories.

A thousand years and more before her birth, a sister of England’s first king, Athelstan, had travelled to Germany, there to marry Otto, the heir to the Saxon throne. Eadgyth, according to one admiring witness, was a woman “of pure noble countenance, graceful character and truly royal appearance.” She provided, at the court of her hairy and martial husband, a touch of feminine glamour. Famously beautiful, she was renowned as well for her compassion and her concern for the wretched. When she died, at the tender age of 36, she was mourned across the whole of Germany, and commemorated as the people’s princess.

Few today, of course, remember Eadgyth. No one watched her wedding on television; no one splashed her photo on the cover of a magazine. Yet the potency of Diana’s fame was precisely that it had a venerable as well as a contemporary cast, and was no less rooted in the traditions of Christian monarchy than it was in the fashions of pop culture. Eadgyth stood at the head of a long line of queens and princesses in medieval Europe who served their people as counterweights to the ideals of masculine royalty: as paradigms of mercy, compassion, care.

Eadgyth was not alone in being hailed by her subjects as a saint. Holiest of all royal women, perhaps, was Elizabeth, a descendant of Hungary’s first Christian king who, in 1221, married the ruler of Thuringia. She tended to the sick; treated their wounds; mopped up the mucus and saliva from their faces. When she died at the age of 24, no one doubted that she belonged to heaven. Proof of this was manifest in the numerous miracles reported from her tomb. A woman who had stuck a pea in her ear when she was a young girl regained her hearing; numerous hunchbacks were healed. To this day, Elizabeth of Hungary is revered by Catholics as a model of charity and compassion. Unlike Eadgyth, she continues to be commemorated as a saint.

Diana, of course, was no saint. Her own brother, in his funeral address, acknowledged as much. She died, after all, in the back of a car alongside her lover. Yet her affairs, her fallibilities, her vulnerabilities only led to her being the more loved. This would not have been the case had she been merely a fashion icon. Medieval hagiographers had been deeply moved by the spectacle of royal women such as Elizabeth of Hungary tending to the sores of lepers in their expensive jewellery and finest robes. Diana’s admirers, when they saw her shaking hands with AIDS sufferers, were touched and inspired in a similar way. Dread of what tabloids called the “gay plague” ran deep in the Eighties. The role played by Diana in combatting the taboos surrounding it had required courage as well as compassion. When Elton, performing his threnody in Westminster Abbey, sang of how she had “whispered to those in pain,” he did so from the heart.

In the Middle Ages, the Matter of Britain was the story of King Arthur and the Round Table. Today, thanks to the inherent drama of the narrative, amplified and repackaged as it has been by The Crown, it is the story of Princess Diana. That there were many who found her shallow and manipulative, and who regret the loss of nation self-control that her death seemed to prompt, makes no difference to the potency of her renown. Myths are not bound by the rules that trammel mere mortals. Diana’s candle burned out long before her legend will.