The Everlasting Trope: King’s Return

I’ve been wanting to write a post all week, but I haven’t been feeling very clever, and nothing of merit came to mind. But I just finished a fantastic book–I’ll review it at another time–and it reminded me of a trope that I love. It’s often done badly, but when it’s done well, I truly love it.
There are a couple of official varieties per TVtropes: Fisher King, Rightful King Returns, King incognito, or Hidden Back-up Prince.
A lot of people get tired of this trope and I understand why. The most common arguments against it are as follows:
  1. It’s been done to death
  2. Who is to say she deserves to be Queen just because of her bloodline?
  3. Oh of course she’s a princess, on top of everything else! Sure. Great.
  4. Why can’t the characters just be normal people? What’s the obsession with royalty?
  5. Why always a monarchy, a King? Isn’t that just a synonym for a dictator?
  6. Aren’t we past all that simplistic fairytale nonsense?
Some of these complaints are valid, but here is why I love the trope anyway (when done right) and why I think it continues to appeal:
First: There’s a coming-homeness inherent in this type of storyline. It’s about pieces fitting together, and someone being the rightful something. We live in a world with tremendous possibilities and the idea that you can be whoever or whatever you want to be. But people wouldn’t take so many “Which element are you?” “What is your Meyer’s Briggs Type?” quizzes, or so tightly clutch sundry ‘identities’ if we didn’t crave to have something grounded and inherent. Something rightful. Something to which we eventually come home after all our wanderings, and which welcomes us as native.
Second: This is particularly strong with the Fisher King type of trope–where the very health and nature of the land is inextricably tied to the reign of the true king. There is the implication of restoration and renewal–of either peace, or of magic, or of daylight.
Third: Authority. Now hear me out on this, because authority is actually most people’s biggest beef with the whole “true King” trope. Who is that bloke to shove in and rule over us? I call for a democracy! Well, of course, we being 21st century beings with 21st century sensibilities would say that. We live in a society where we have the blessed freedom to either praise or deride, support or mock, our elected leaders. Flawed though our system may be, we are not beholden to our leaders the way most subjects have been to their Kings or Queens. We might like or respect a given leader once in a blue moon, but I think awe is usually out of the question. And I think we’re all pretty happy about that.
But there is still this craving for a trustworthy type of authority (even if only in more prosaic ways, as in the authority of science, mathematics, or an expert in a field) as if we are living in some ancient legend, and we are willing to suffer all these fools until some real leadership sets in. That there was a key that fit the lock, and it could be trusted to do so, because that’s what it was made for. That there was something that was so naturally correct you don’t want to mock it. That’s why the ‘rightful king’ thing and the ‘chosen one’ thing often get caught up together, because everyone takes the prophecy or the bloodline for granted that they are indisputable FACT. For the record, the whole ‘chosen one’ trope is not my favorite.
Anyhow, you might be surprised at the number of people (from either end of the political spectrum) that I have heard muse that having a monarchy actually appeals to them. Naturally they immediately retract and say “I mean obviously it would just turn in to a dictatorship and it would never work, but…wouldn’t it be nice if it did…work.”
I think this goes down to the fact that we know things are pretty messed up and we want there to be a straightforward way to un-mess it up. Bureaucratic solutions don’t exactly thrill the adventurous soul, and they don’t usually work how we want them to. It also explains why the rightful rulers are often supernatural in some aspect, because we’re well aware that we humans–even the best of us–cannot get it quite right.
(I keep saying ‘we.’ Perhaps I should say ‘me.’ But I do think that this trope has wide appeal, even if people often brush it off as old-fashioned)
Anyhow, this leads to…
Fourth: I think this is the one many people don’t like; the whole “rightful king” thing is strongly related to the Messianic concept. The person who is going to come and fix everything in a whirlwind. To say that this is merely a literary appeal is to say far too little. Several major religions take this idea very, very seriously. Judaism: a Messiah is coming. Christianity: the Messiah has already come and he will come again. Twelver Shia Islam: the hidden Imam will return.
There are others. These beliefs portend a mixture of apocalypse and eucatastrophe, which is to say, that they bring both great joy and terrible danger. The world shudders and sheds an old skin and none of us know what comes next.
In the book I just finished there were a series of fantastic scenes where a given King may or may not be returning, and the whole country just wakes up. And it does so in a way that is simultaneously thrilling and a little frightening…good, but not safe or tame. Like Aslan. You’re frightened, but also ecstatic, and you would just dive into the danger head first.
I’ve always liked that edge-of-the-precipice feeling.
Fifth: To bring it down a notch, there’s just always something exciting about someone being more than what they seem and about who they are affecting their choices and how you see them once you know. And it’s exciting because it’s true. Every single person you ever interact with is more than what they seem. This is not profound. We all know this. They all have stories, sad or joyful, rich or odd. There is something wonderful and strange about them, even if they don’t yet know it themselves. Even if you don’t like them. Even if the only words you say to them are “Good morning! That’ll be $6.95! Have a good day!”
So I know this trope is a little passé right now, but I also think it’s millennia old for a reason.




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