The Pleasure of His Majesty: Kingship in the Works of the Inklings


An age of fable has ended. The world has gotten old; skepticism is our wisdom. We do not believe in the magic of pedigree, and we expect the son not to take up his father’s role … We have cancelled faith, the gold standard of monarchy, as well as ‘The Pleasure of His Majesty,” once the common currency.

–Charles Fenyvesi, Splendor in Exile, pp. 276-7

     As is well known, the religious ideals of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Charles Williams were extremely traditional; Roman Catholic in the case of the first named, Anglo-Catholic as regards the second two. Volumes have been written about the effect of this sacramental religiosity on their fantasy writings. Less touched upon have been their political conceptions, specifically in regard to monarchy. But just as their concept of Christianity was mediaeval (either through conservative Catholicism or via the Anglican “Branch Theory”) so too was their ideal of governance.

     In the course of their writings, each employed elements of authentic Christian Sacral Kingship. Their kings are neither the figureheads with which we are familiar in everyday life nor the all-powerful despots the modern mind conjures up when it thinks of the word “king.” Rather, they are mythic figures of romance, images, like their prototypes of Arthur and Charlemagne, of Christ the King. In all their activities, the Inklings’ monarchs conform to the mediaeval archetypes of king as quasi-priest, as judge, as warlord, as fount of honour. We will examine in some detail various monarchies which they describe, and end with a consideration of their beliefs about the role of the monarchy in the real world. It is the view of this writer that their political beliefs as expressed in their writings, although vaguer in application than their religious ideas, were nevertheless just as central to the genesis of their work.

     The first example we will look at are the Elvish Kings in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Lord of The Rings. They are particularly appropriate in approaching the mediaeval idea of kingship. During the Middle Ages, the contradiction between the sacred nature of the Crown per se, and the sometimes objectionable activities of various individual monarchs, prompted the evolution of the doctrine of “the King’s Two Bodies.” The Body Political was the Crown in the abstract: guarantor of justice, divine regent, fount of honour. To this aspect of the King was due all the emotion which we today call “patriotism”. The Crown in this sense was undying; hence the phrase “the King is dead — long live the King!” “The life of the King is the health of the Land” was true of the Body Political. In a word, the King in this sense was a sort of human flag, in much the same way as the surviving sovereigns of Spain, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Britain and the Dominions.

     The Body Natural was quite another matter. This was the current incarnation, so to speak, of the Crown. It was this aspect which performed the day-to-day actions of the King. To oppose the Crown itself was treason; but if the wearer of that Crown acted outside or against the law, it was the duty of the subject to join with others to force him — for his own as well as others’ sakes — back to the path of law, a la Magna Carta. The most basic example of the Body Natural’s imperfection, however, was that it would die, to be replaced by another. The relationship of the two bodies was most plainly put by the accessional phrase just mentioned, but was clearly symbolised in the Polish royal funeral rite. While the dead King lay in state in Cracow cathedral, a visored knight representing him outside would fall from his horse, breaking his lance. At the same time, the old ruler’s seal was broken. Thus the death of the person and the survival of the Crown was dramatised.

     But there is no such distinction with Tolkien’s Elvish Kings. Whatever their period, the Vanyar’s Ingwe, Thingol of Doriath, Gil-Galad of Lindon, Galadriel of Lothlorien, Thranduil of Mirkwood, and their colleagues were deathless. In them, both bodies are united, for being immortal unless killed, they are in fact as well as in aspiration the very archetypes of their realms. They last as long as their lands do, and when they die, their people’s nationality passes. As the ruin of the human Crown generally meant the extinction or conquest of the nation, so the actual death of Elvish monarchs generally means the same. So it is that among them we may see the purely theoretical aspects of sacred monarchy given full play.

     Firstly, as mediaeval theory held kingship to be of divine origin, so it is among the Elves in the Silmarillion. The first Elvish Kings are the leaders of the three kindreds of the Eldar who respond to the Valar’s summons. Of these, the primacy of honour is given Ingwe, head of Vanyar. After his arrival in Valinor, he is “ever held the High King of all the Elves” (p.65). His position, in other words, is analogous to that of the High King of Ireland over the other kings of that island, or more particularly that of the Holy Roman Emperor over all the other Latin Christian monarchs.

     As with these two real world sovereigns, Ingwe’s High Kingship is nominal, in the sense that it means little in the day to day running of affairs outside his own circle. But lack of “power”, the ability to make things happen, is not the same as lack of “authority”, the right to indicate what ought to happen. Just as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ard-Ri were more important for what they were — holders of supreme temporal authority — than for what they actually did — precious little outside their own realms — so too with Ingwe’s. With a pre-modern people, unused to having every detail of life organised by a central state power, symbol is as or more important than mere “reality”. The Elves were nothing if not pre-modern.

     The Kings under Ingwe, like those of Munster, Ulster, Connaught, and Leinster, in the one example, or those of France, Naples, Poland, Scotland, etc., in the other, carry on their reigns with little or no regular counsel or approval given by their overlord; his primacy is strictly of honour, though no less prized for that.

     Since both of the King’s Two Bodies are united in Elvish Sovereigns, due to their relative immortality, it might be wise to point out some of their actions in accordance with the four archetypes of royal authority.

     In Sacred Kingship, the King partakes of the priestly mediating power. Among non-Christian rulers this is accomplished either by maintaining that the monarch is divine himself, or at least the son of a god (e.g. Ancient Egypt, the Incas, the Dogons); head of the national cult and chief priest (China and Japan); or a sort of regent for divine authority (Ancient Israel and the Mesopotamian city-states). Obviously these categories are not rigid, and tend to blend in various cultures. Among Christians, however, the pre-existence of an independent priestly hierarchy in the Church put Christian Sacred Kingship into a development of the last category. But while primarily divine vicars in the temporal sphere, they were not entirely without a demi-priestly character.

     Their coronations, including sacred anointing, were likened to an eighth sacrament; during the ceremony they wore the vestments of a deacon or sub-deacon. In some countries they received clerical privileges like drinking from the chalice at Mass or being allowed to touch sacred objects; they were sometimes given other ecclesiastical rights, such as canonries or liturgical roles. For the Elvish kings, there was no need of such symbolic acts. They were indeed the regents of the Valar, this authority given them during the lifetimes of many of their still-living subjects. Hence the elaborate ritual necessary to show the fact of divine regency in human courts is completely absent in Elvish ones.

     The pre-eminent centre of royal authority in mediaeval monarchs was judicial. In the Elvish ones, it is also. Thingol of Doriath, Galadriel of Lorien, Thranduil of Mirkwood, Thrgon of Gondolin and their kind, all exercised this power continually. Like the mediaeval kings, this was in large degree their major peace-time function: acting as the highest court in the land, an activity still commemorated in Great Britain and the Commonwealth by the Court of Queen’s Bench. But just as law was considered to be an independent living thing, discovered and interpreted, but not created by the king, so too with the Elves, as may be seen by Melian’s rebukes of Thingol upon certain of his judgements.

     Almost as important a role for the mediaeval king was as warlord. While standing armies were a creation of later centuries, mediaeval kings maintained an escort of knights and men-at-arms to defend their court and persons, as with the Knights of the Round Table or Charlemagne’s Paladins. If they wished to carry on any greater campaign than defending their own castles, they were forced either to mobilise their barons (often a dangerous move), hire mercenaries (also perilous at times), or else some combination of the two. In Beleriand, the successive High Kings of the Noldor were forced in similiar fashion to summon the forces of other Noldorin lords (and other kindreds of Elves also) with sometimes disastrous results, as at Nirnaeth Arnoediad. But where (except for the tenantry being called on to defend their homes) Mediaeval Europe reserved warfare to the nobles and their retainers, a situation which subsisted until the invention of conscription by the French revolution armies, all able-bodied male Elves were expected to serve. Given the demonic nature of the Morgothian opposition, however, this might be likened to the Crusades, where the services of peasants and townsmen were actively solicited, although not drafted.

     The last major archetype to be considered is that of the king as fount of honour. Among European monarchies, the granting of titles, hereditary and otherwise, and of fiefs was complicated by human mortality (resulting in the various ceremonies of homage, entrees, and so forth), the immortal Elvish rulers simply appointed individuals to offices, needing to replace them only when death in battle (or rarely) treason vacated them. While neither Medieval Christendom nor the Elvish lands of Beleriand and the rest of Middle Earth knew the modern state, the former did require, simply because of human limitation and fatigue on the part of the ruler, the Royal Household, whose four parts (Chamber, Hall, Chapel, and Stable) eventually grew into the central national administrations with which we are all familiar. Since an Elvish King knew no such limitations, he needed to delegate only simple functions, not decision-making or administrative ones.

     Numenorean Kingship, both in the Land of the Star and in exile was much more like that of Mediaeval Europe, being, indeed, consciously modeled on it by its author. Due to the humanity of the Dunedain, their kings perforce were graced with the “Two Bodies”. So durable indeed was its Body Political that not even the treason of Ar Pharazon and the inundation of Numenor could destroy it. It passed to the nearest faithful branch, the Lords of Andunie, and continued on the mainland.

     Being pre-Christian (and Tolkien’s letters reveal a certain apprehension regarding his imaginary world’s concordance with Salvation History), the Dunedain Monarchy had no equivalent to the Church. Nevertheless, the Kings of Numenor, Arnor, and Gondor did have several demi-priestly tasks. Like the Chinese Emperor’s yearly sacrifice at Peking’s Temple of Heaven, the King of Numenor offered the first fruits to Eru at the Meneltarma annually (Silmarillion, p.329). The account in Unfinished Tales of Amon Anwar, the burial place of Elendil, is such to make one wonder if the King of Gondor did not perform a similiar rite there; if he did, would not also his counterpart in Arnor have done so, perhaps at the Barrow Downs? In addition to this, the patronage of the Istari, particularly Gandalf, who himself (as I have written elsewhere) functions as a sort of Pope, is very reminiscent of the mediaeval kingdoms.

     His coronation of Aragorn would seem to confirm this, as in real life the primate of each country performed this task; though the Pope himself crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. The other semi-priestly power given mediaeval monarchs was that of healing. While the power of the Kings of France and England to cure scrofula (the King’s Evil) is well known, the abilites of their colleagues of Denmark and Castile respectively to cure epilepsy or exorcise demons is less renowned, as is the belief that the Holy Roman Emperors had some control over weather (hence the German idiom Kaiserwetter for a warm, sunny day). This comes dramatically to the fore in The Return of the King, when Aragorn proves the truth of the old Gondorian proverb, “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer.”

     The Kings of the Dunedain also have an authority based upon their role as supreme judges. Aragorn exercises this power after his coronation, meting out judgments to nations and individuals alike. But in doing so, he is bound by custom and justice, as when he confirms the grant of their land to the Rohirrim, and deprives Beregond of his position in the Guard of the Citadel, sending him to be one of Faramir’s retainers instead.

     As warlords, the Dunedain Kings and their Stewards act exactly as their mediaeval equivalents did. This is brought out most clearly in the gathering of troops from the outward fiefs to defend Minas Tirith against Sauron’s last attack. But the “Tale of Years” could well be a fictionalisation of any account of the military doings of a mediaeval monarchy.

     Similiarly, the Numenorean Crown functions in standard manner as the fount of honour. All the trappings of a mediaeval royal household are present — steward and great officers of state, and so on. There is the feudal organisation of the country, complete with fiefs and what we would call today a very rudimentary infrastructure; what little central government functions like road maintenance and lower courts of justice exist, are farmed out to local magnates and notables. The Prince of Dol Amroth, cousin of the steward and foremost nobleman in the realm, functions much as did the Dukes of Burgundy in Capetian France. While we are not given much detail about internal administration of such fiefs in Gondor or Arnor, the Shire’s organisation — an idealised mediaeval setting — was probably rather standard, with local government large on ceremony and small in conduct of day-to-day affairs.

     Moving away from J.R.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis, we will see how Narnian kingship fits into the framework we have established. Unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where both the three chiefs of the Eldar and Elros and his descendants have their kingship bestowed upon them by the Valar, who, after all are angels rather than deities, the Narnian Monarchy is directly established by Aslan, who, as is well known, is simply Christ in that world. The repeated description of Aslan throughout the Chronicles of Narnia as the High King over all Kings in Narnia is very reminiscent of the Mediaeval idea of the sovereign as the vicar or regent of Christ the King. The oration Aslan gives monarchs-to-be Frank and Helen (The Magician’s Nephew, pp. 123-4) expresses very well the requirements of Christian Kingship as expressed in so many mediaeval “manuals for princes”:

     My children … you are to be the first King and Queen of Narnia … You shall rule and name all these creatures, and do justice among them, and protect them from their enemies when enemies arise. And enemies will arise, for there is an evil witch in this world… Can you rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves like the dumb beasts of the world you were born in but Talking Beasts and free subjects?… And would you bring up your children and grandchildren to do the same? … And you wouldn’t have favourites either among your own children and grandchildren or among the other creatures or let any hold another under or use it hardly?

     And if enemies came against the land (for enemies will arise) and there was war, would you be the first in the charge and the last in the retreat?… Then … you will have done all that a King should do. Your coronation will be held presently. And you and your children and grandchildren shall be blessed, and some will be Kings of Narnia, and others will be Kings of Archenland which lies yonder over the southern mountains…

     This sums up the mediaeval conception of monarchy, and the Narnian; on two subsequent occasions (as we are told in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian) Aslan renewed the Narnian Crown, first with the four children and then with Caspian. The latter, incidentally, acted just as mediaeval theologians etc. would wish him to, when he set the Lone Islands to rights in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Priest (or at least mediator between Aslan and his subjects), judge, and warlord, the ideal king of Narnia also summed up in himself the three major attributes of Christian Sacred Monarchy.

     Charles Williams dealt directly with Sacral Monarchy in both Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. Here too, as one would expect, we see all the details of mediaeval kingship reproduced: Arthur as priest, judge, and warlord, and overmuch commentary on the obvious would not be useful. But the mediaeval relation of earthly kingship to divine authority subsists in Williams’ modern novelistic settings as well. While praying before the Grail in War In Heaven, the Duke of the Northern Ridings is “aware of a sense of the adoration of kings  — “. All of the traditions of his Catholic recusant family, loyal alike to Pope, Emperor, and King, “drew his mind into a vivid consciousness of all the royal and sacerdotal figures of the world adoring before this consecrated shrine. ‘Jesu, Rex et Sacerdos’, he prayed…”

     This is an important transition Williams makes. We no longer live in the Middle Ages. To assist centralising monarchs in taming the diffuse powers of their realms, Renaissance and Reformation saw the fourfold Royal Household referred to earlier transmute into the powerful administration of the modern state. After 1789, most of these States in Europe and the Americas saw fit to dispense with the descendants of the sovereigns who had called them into being. In the few nations of former Christendom retaining monarchial heads of state, their roles became severely attenuated. Control over national judiciaries passed from their hands; as the technology of battle “progressed”, their warlordship became nominal. As the son of the last Austrian Emperor, the Archduke Otto von Habsburg has said, “Monarchy began to decline when Kings ceased to lead their troops into battle”. Increasingly, they became sorts of “crowned ombudsmen”, a fact alluded to by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria when he defined his role as “saving my people from their politicians”. (Monarchy Canada — Winter 1991-92)

     Since the world wars, even this role has passed to a great degree, although flashes of it persist to this day; in Great Britain and the Dominions who share her Queen, it happened even earlier. But conjointly with this, the monarch’s quasi-priestly attribute, his role as fount of honour and as living symbol of the nation has increased in importance. As the Body Natural has lost importance, the Body Political has in a sense gained. The Queen of Great Britain and the Common wealth has little power when compared with her Tudor ancestors, but her Plantagenet predecessors had little more than she does. It is merely the gathering of power into the hands of the British bureaucracy and cabinet that makes the Royal Prerogative look so insignificant. But she yet wields the same authority that Mediaeval English Kings did. The question we must answer then, is how the Inklings looked upon this surviving authority in real life, as opposed to mere historical or literary interest.

     Before we answer this question, however, there is one point covered by Williams in Shadows of Ecstasy which ought to be touched upon. Mediaeval Sacral Monarchy was the product of the mixing of pre-Christian Sacred Kingship with Sacramental Christianity. When that faith spread beyond Mediaeval Christendom’s borders, and came into contact with non-European Sacred Kings, the same result occurred. Pacific Christian Kings, as those of Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Wallis and Futuna, and African ones like the rulers of Kongo, Buganda, Burundi, Bunyoro, Barotse, Swaziland, and Lesotho, all developed what were the obvious beginnings of Christian Sacral Monarchy.

      Less well known is that the same process occurred with the Indian Caciques of Spanish America, such as Mexico’s Princes of Tlaxcala, or Peru’s Marquesses of Oropesa. These developments were all derailed by modernisation and independence, but the testimony they give to the psychological resonance of most peoples with the concept of the “Holy Crown” is important. One of the yet enduring native monarchies which has been to a degree Christianised is the Zulu, whose fictional ruler makes an appearance in Shadows of Ecstasy, thus allowing Williams to show that the “ecstasy” or charism of Kingship transcends national or racial lines in its ability to touch the soul:

     For a few moments royalty — a dark alien royalty — had appeared in the room, imposed upon all of them by the mere intensity of the Zulu chieftain’s own strength and conviction. By virtue of that wide reading which both she and her husband loved, she had felt a shadow of it at times; in the superb lines of Marlowe or Shakespeare, in the rolling titles heard on ceremonial occasions at Church or in local celebrations: “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty”, “His Majesty the King-Emperor”, “The Government of His Britannic Majesty”.

     Williams goes on a few sentences later to describe kingship as “single bliss and sole felicity”, and to equate it with poetry.

     That Williams was serious in his adherence to monarchy in the world of fact is obvious from Alice Hadfield’s observation on page 21 of her Charles Williams:

     Though youthfully a very temporary republican, he slowly created himself over the years a synthesis in which all men and women were equal and yet different within their hierarchies of excellence and distinction, in which above political equality everyone’s distinctness was embodied in the single person of the monarch, as everyone’s personal equality and distinctness were held in Christ. He retained his sense of monarchy, hereditary in that it must have a blood link with the long history of England, visible to high and low, free from fashion, choice or vote, apex of an administration free, equal and yet hierarchical in public distinction.

     Lewis shared Williams’ loyalty; when Merlin echoes the revolutionary mentality, urging deposition of the powerless Saxon king, because of that very powerlessness, in That Hideous Strength, Ransome replies, “I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres, I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain, I am the King’s man”. Whether in Narnia or England, Lewis believed that allegiance was owed the crowned of God, simply because it was right and the natural order of things.

     What then of Tolkien? He too shared the royalism of his confreres. As Humphrey Carpenter put it in his biography of J.R.R. Tolkien:

     Tolkien was, in modern jargon, ‘right wing’ in that he honoured his monarch and his country and did not believe in the rule of the people; but he opposed democracy simply because he believed that in the end his fellow men would not benefit from it. He once wrote: “I am not a ‘democrat’, if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal bigness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a Ring of Power — and then we get and are getting slavery”.

     It is difficult for Americans like ourselves to comprehend, let alone sympathise with such views. The very birth of our nation involved a rejection of kingship; since 1776 we have each ingested republicanism with our mother’s apple pie. As Fenyvesi, himself no monarchist, observes, “Republican accountability requires a pursuit of the rational. Citizens bow to the technician whose presumption is efficiency and whose excuse is science. He knows all about systems, and ‘functional’ is his highest praise”. But the royalism of the Inklings appeals as much or more to hearts and souls as to heads. Their essentially religious political orientation is particularly alien to us, given our national dogma of separation of Church and State.

     Nevertheless, it is important to realise that they did not and do not stand alone. In their own time and place, their ideas on monarchy were more or less shared by such worthies as Belloc, Chesterton, Kipling, Machen, and of course, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers. They in turn were much inspired by the Young England movement of the 19th Century, itself the British version of the counterrevolutionary wing of the Romantic Movement, which had adherents in every country in Europe.

     Nor must it be supposed that this ideology is a thing of the past. Despite the overthrow of most European monarchies during the course of this century, royalist movements and parties survive in every nation on the continent. They became particularly vocal during the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution, and surfaced with surprising strength in Eastern Europe, and even in the Soviet Union, in the period since then. Most astonishing of all, adherents of the Imperial Family of Brazil mustered enough force there to have a plebiscite on restoration scheduled for 1993. Above mere politics, however, the number of monarchists — like Eugene Ionesco — in the European artistic world remains great.

     Since the execution of Socrates for monotheism and monarchism, the battle between republicanism and royalism, to which the advent of Christianity offered a new and pervasive twist, has gone on. In one century monarchies predominate, in another republics. In an age consecrated no less than that of Pericles’ Athens to the downfall of kings, the Inklings chose to be defenders of the Crown. It is well, then, to conclude by giving C.S.Lewis the last word:

     Monarchy can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach — men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: deny it food and it will gobble poison.

By Charles A. Coulombe