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February 27, 2024   5 mins

If we were living in the world of mythology, King Charles’s cancer might have some dire consequences. It’s possible that the entire economy would collapse, famine would kill off millions of citizens and those who survived might perish of plague. The country would be strewn with dead cattle and acres of rotting corn. Rivers would run dry, birds fall silent and the sun would struggle to heave over the horizon. The country would look back on the last days of Rishi Sunak as a utopian idyll, a time of harmony and rejoicing before darkness fell upon the land.

The image of the sick king runs back thousands of years in the human psyche. We find it first in ancient fertility cults and vegetation ceremonies, and later in the Grail legend. It crops up in the romances and popular drama of medieval England, and lies behind the most famous of modern poems, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.  At the centre of the myth is a sovereign who has suffered an obscure wound, perhaps in the genitals, perhaps self-inflicted. Or maybe he has simply grown too old and infirm to rule, like an early version of Joe Biden. In some legends, the king is wounded as a punishment for illicit sexual passion, though it isn’t clear whether this includes falling in love with the wife of a Guards officer.

The result of this regal impotence is that Nature’s powers fail and the land is lain waste. The springs of new growth will be unlocked only when the monarch is restored to health by the arrival of the Quester, a courageous young Galahad who will either heal the old man, resurrect his dead body or take his place as ruler. In some versions of the myth, the king is either starved to death, strangled or slain by his own relatives. Brawling within royal families isn’t confined to the present.

For the past two millennia, one particular image of the sick king has fascinated the world: Jesus Christ, the crucified God. Astonishingly, a large sector of the human race worships a God who was scourged, humiliated and tortured to death. This was no perfect, all-powerful deity but a failure, at least in the eyes of what St John darkly calls the world. It’s even doubtful in what sense Jesus can be seen as a king. His life is less an example of sovereign power than a critique of it. It serves to expose the fact that all authority is finite and fragile, all monarchs are damaged ones. The words supposedly attached to his cross — “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” — are less a solemn announcement than a piece of mockery on the part of the Romans who executed him. Since Nazareth was in the stagnant backwater of Galilee, and since Galilee was a by-word for rural idiocy at the time, the idea that a king might arise from this region seemed as improbable as a Duke of Barnsley.

In any case, Jesus makes no unequivocal claim to kingship in the New Testament. In a satirical smack at royal ceremony, he rides into the nation’s capital on the back of a donkey, not in whatever was the equivalent of a limo in first-century Palestine. He had comrades, not courtiers. It’s certainly hard to see him as the Messiah, a figure the Jews thought of as a militant national leader who would liberate the nation by routing its enemies. Far from vanquishing Israel’s foes, Jesus ends up as their helpless victim.

Even so, Christianity retains the insight that the only good king is a dead one, or at least one who is fatally flawed. Unless God enters into a solidarity of suffering with his creatures in the person of Jesus, exchanging power for weakness, he won’t be able to transform that defective human stuff from within. Weakness, then, is a precondition for success, death of new life. And the same goes for fertility cults and vegetation ceremonies. Unless Nature dies, unless the land is laid waste, there can’t be any regeneration, which is to say that winter is a necessary prelude to spring. The concept of the injured king is an attempt to come to terms with this truth.

“Christianity retains the insight that the only good king is a dead one.”

For the mind which creates such narratives, there is a set of secret affinities or magical correspondences between the human and the natural. When Macbeth murders his king, storms are unleashed and horses eat each other. The modern mind, by contrast, sees a strict opposition between these two domains, one as absolute as the opposition between life and death. The human is the realm of living spirit, while Nature is dead matter to be manipulated. Since we ourselves are spirits who are partly made up of matter, this fissure runs all the way through human beings. It becomes impossible to explain how these two dimensions of us can fit together — how an immaterial thought, for example, can result in a material action. Hence the dualism which dominates so much modern Western thinking.

A number of factors have helped to undermine that way of seeing, of which one of the most important is climate change. It is now frighteningly clear that the human species and the sphere it inhabits are as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper. There are indeed correspondences between the mind and the world. The ancient myths were true after all. But these correspondences aren’t benign and harmonious, as so many have believed in the past. Instead, the greed and acquisitiveness of humanity are reflected in the turmoil and devastation of Nature. There is a symmetry between the modern human spirit and its material home, but it is a symmetry of disorder. And there’s no gallant knight on hand to ride to the rescue.

There is an ancient tradition that the king is a kind of fool, which reaches a magnificent climax in Shakespeare’s King Lear. How does this equation between the two figures work? For one thing, you have to be a fool to want to be king. Anyone with that much power is bound to be the object of envy and aggression: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. In some tribal societies, the hapless individual who is about to become chief is symbolically beaten up, or sometimes not so symbolically.

The wounded king, however, is often seen as semi-divine, and so in a sense is Charles. It’s part of royalist ideology to regard this balding, bat-eared, petulant character as God’s representative on earth. Rather as God sustains the universe in existence, so the king sustains the nation. But he is also the representative of the people, and so marks the point where God and people meet. Members of Parliament represent our particular needs and interests, but the monarch represents us in our pure identity as British subjects, regardless of what form this may assume.

The only problem with this is that there is no such thing as a pure British identity, so that the monarchy rests on an illusion. There’s no part of you or me that is a British subject and nothing else. There are both positive and negative ways of being a member of the nation, but being a member of the nation isn’t a good thing in itself, any more than being 5’10” or freckled is a good thing in itself.

If the sovereign sustains the nation, and God sustains the sovereign, then society would seem to rest on the firmest of foundations. Yet one of the great discoveries of the modern era is that we can do without this metaphysical underpinning, rather as a young child learns to do without its blanket. Democracy means that we aren’t resting on anything but ourselves. There are no longer any eternal assurances or supernatural guarantees. Instead, we take our lives in our own hands, sort things out among ourselves and make things up as we go along. Monarchy is for those who still need a blanket or a Big Daddy. It is a flawed conception, just like the sick king himself.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.