The Return of the King

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke imagines an alternate history of England, one in which the north of England was ruled for 300 years in the Middle Ages by John Uskglass, the Raven King, who one day disappeared and never returned – though his people long for him to this day. (“This day” being the early nineteenth century.)

There’s a moment late in the book where a thoroughly modern and thoroughly nasty gentleman named Lascelles, an ally and confidante of the dourly pedantic magician Gilbert Norrell, notes with scorn and mockery a recently renewed devotion to the Raven King. This leads to a telling exchange with Norrell’s servant, one John Childermass.

“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”

Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”

“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”

It is understandable that people would long for the return of a King as a great as John Uskglass was. The talking beasts of Narnia likewise long for the return of Aslan – long for it so much that they are easily deceived by a donkey wearing a lion’s skin.

The return of the King. It’s a thought that may inspire at least a tickle at the back of the neck even for the most worldly and cynical of us. And as appealing as the thought of the King’s return is, equally appealing, perhaps, is the thought that one who remains faithful in dark days will be commended on that great day of restoration by the Sovereign.

Some have even lived to see such a moment. Upon the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the steadfast British royalist John Evelyn wrote in his diary,

29th May, 1660. This day, his Majesty, Charles II. came to London, after a sad and long exile and calamitous suffering both of the King and Church, being seventeen years. This was also his birthday, and with a triumph of above 20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords, and shouting with inexpressible joy; the ways strewn with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine; the Mayor, Aldermen, and all the companies, in their liveries, chains of gold, and banners; Lords and Nobles, clad in cloth of silver, gold, and velvet; the windows and balconies, all set with ladies; trumpets, music, and myriads of people flocking, even so far as from Rochester, so as they were seven hours in passing the city, even from two in the afternoon till nine at night.

I stood in the Strand and beheld it, and blessed God. And all this was done without one drop of blood shed, and by that very army which rebelled against him: but it was the Lord’s doing, for such a restoration was never mentioned in any history, ancient or modern, since the return of the Jews from their Babylonish captivity; nor so joyful a day and so bright ever seen in this nation, this happening when to expect or effect it was past all human policy.

These intense monarchial feelings, these profound heart’s desires, may be embedded more deeply within us than we typically realize. Over at the Hedgehog Review, I wrote — extending some previous work of mine — about Emile Durkheim’s belief that we had transitioned irreversibly from elementary forms of religious life to a secularized modernity:

The relevance of Durkheim to our present moment arises, it seems to me, rather paradoxically from the strong possibility that he was wrong in his belief that the transfer to a modern social order was both imminent and irreversible. Certainly it seems that in our current moment some of the features of traditional society that Durkheim calls particular attention to have undergone a kind of revival. Perhaps this is their Indian summer; or perhaps the fundamental impulses of traditional societies are harder to kill off than Durkheim thought they were.

Among the atavistic impulses we thought we had outgrown is this longing for a sacred kingship. I have been reading Isaac Ariail Reed’s extraordinary book Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies, which demonstrates the various ways that that central doctrine of medieval politcal theology, the king’s two bodies, keeps returning to life, though in transfigured ways that can sometimes make it unrecognizable.

And late in the book Reed contemplates the rise of Nazism:

It is against this landscape of meaning that Carl Schmitt wrote of the importance of the discretion that accrued to judges; of the need for a sovereign to use his own judgment to decide both that there is an emergency and what to do about it; and of the grounding of all political concepts in the theological — a triptych of concerns that suggests rather strongly a particular kind of replacement for the King’s Two Bodies. In his book on Hobbes, published in 1938, Schmitt gave intellectual expression to the resentments that drove the Nazi revolution and regime. He first linked the emergence of modern, Weberian bureaucracy to the death of divine kingship as an ordered format of rule. He then preached about the inevitable collapse of liberal democracy, which he called a “fool’s paradise” with no real legitimacy. Into this breach, he could only imagine one solution: an entirely homogeneous demos could delegate to a single sovereign, who, because he was of the body of the people, would be trusted and endowed with absolute power. In this way would the dictator’s second body be born of the body of the people. It is a figuration that is still with us.

Indeed it is. As we have recently seen, people will even wish to die for Donald Trump — who is no Hitler but rather, essentially, a Shift the Ape who wears the lion’s skin himself rather than putting it on Puzzle the donkey. And Christians — Christians! — will gather on the Mall in Washington D.C. to luxuriate in the propwashed benediction of the Presidential helicopter.

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O sacred monarch, do not leave us. But if you do, we your faithful people will await your coming again in glory in 2024.

To all of this, I can only summon my readers to hear the Word of the Lord:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king…. But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”

Here endeth the reading.