On monarchy in literature and life

Queen Elizabeth II’s Funeral and Procession (Wikimedia Commons – Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

“Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftains’ sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.”

[Beowulf, lines 3169-72, trans. Seamus Heaney, p.99]

“Roundly they rang bells, sang the Requiem,
and said masses and matins with mournful voices.
Religious men, dressed in their rich robes,
pontiffs and prelates in their precious clothes,
dukes and statesmen suited most solemnly,
countesses kneeling and clasping their hands,
frowning ladies lamenting their loss,
brides and daughters draped in black,
they encircled the sepulchre with streaming tears,
for such a sorrowful sight was never seen in their time.”

[Alliterative Morte Arthur, lines 4332-4342, trans. Simon Armitage, ‘The Death of King Arthur’, p.158]

Monarchy has been a feature of human societies since time immemorial, and is ensconced in our literary traditions.  The two passages above are both taken from the funerals of famous leaders depicted in literature, and remind us of recent scenes following the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  That is to say, they both display two profound elements that must come into play on any such occasion, namely, solemn ritual and sorrowful emotion.

Regarding ritual, we may note that it has played a role of fundamental importance in the development of all great civilizations, bringing the realms of the sacred and profane into communion, and giving inspiration, meaning, joy and a sense of fraternity to all peoples of the world.  Queen Elizabeth II, serving as a symbol of monarchy, and as source of legitimate authority in constitutional government, was a figure of pivotal importance in ritual and hierarchy, and thus in terms of social order and social stability itself.

The vigil, funeral and other events to commemorate the life of Queen Elizabeth II remind us also of the continuity of tradition embodied in the long line of Kings and Queens, which she skilfully upheld and maintained throughout her reign, even through changing times.  Whereas democracy is a preeminent principle in modern government, it is balanced against the monarchical principle that has been proven through experience over many millennia across the world.  And conversely, the institution of monarchy can be seen as a kind of check on the power of our elected leaders, through the authority given through ritual, tradition and service to nation.

This sense of the authority of tradition can perhaps be contrasted with the abstract theorising that justifies government in some other polities.  Thus, in comparing the British monarchy with some failed monarchies in other parts of the world, what strikes us is the way in which it found balance and harmony with the democratic principle, through the refining process of many centuries of historical evolution, wherein other factions of English society were able to mitigate the tendency towards tyranny or corruption on the part of the monarch.

Indeed, the failure of ‘good’ hierarchy, as typified by the British monarchy, has led in some parts of the world to ‘bad’ hierarchy, founded on mere self-interest and servility.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury noted about Queen Elizabeth II in his sermon, ‘People of loving service are rare in any walk of life.  Leaders of loving service are still rarer.  But in all cases, those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.’

And in terms of emotion, such rituals of death occasion a display of grief and sorrow that is at once both spontaneous and organized.  Thus we have expressions of solemnity, reverence, humility and other such noble and dignified feelings.  As the two quotes above exemplify, our emotions about death and dying have been a perennial topic in literature and lore.  Likewise, Prof. Tolkien wrote that the real theme of his work is Death and Immortality, and so we may end with these words, the final words of Aragorn on his deathbed –

“In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever in the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.  Farewell!”

[The Lord of the Rings: the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, J.R.R. Tolkien]

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