And do you trust your king?
Kings hold such a grip on our imagination and our history books that we have stopped wondering why they’re so important.
I’m not in the business of telling people what they already know, but forgive this reminder: kings are everywhere. Our movies, our books, our card games, our expressions, our artwork – no position in human history is so famous, so recognizable, so revered as that of king. And because of this saturation of kings, ranging from Babar to Elvis, we don’t stop to ask ourselves why we care so much about kings, and what our idea of kings reveals to us about ourselves.
Despite the astounding number of bad kings in world history, and even considering the number of times a king has been the bad guy in works of fiction, the human imagination remains enraptured by the good and noble king.
The groundwork for these concepts of kingliness might be laid out by examining the glorious amalgamation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations of these works. These stories contain a number of kings, of which I believe Aragorn, Thorin, and Theoden to be the most important.
One of the biggest storylines in The Lord of the Rings that gets set aside when people oversimplify the story to “short guys who smoke and eat a lot go on a walk to chuck a ring into a volcano” is Aragorn’s journey to claim his right as the king of Gondor. This oversight is a little silly, considering the fact one of the books is entitled The Return of the King. But, nonetheless, the importance of Aragorn becoming a king, resuming a bloodline long bereft of lordship, extends beyond his importance of being a hero who takes care of his friends. Hunting orcs with Legolas and Gimli is one thing, but taking his place in a great line of kings is on another level entirely. At first, Aragorn’s place in the story might appear as simple as a good guy with a swift sword, but a more careful reading and viewing makes it pretty clear that it really matters that he is the heir to the throne. That’s part of what makes Boromir’s oath to him so powerful, it’s why the men in the mountain follow him to Minas Tirith, and it’s why his march to the Black Gate and his pre-battle speech are so meaningful.
It’s a similar story for Thorin, King Under the Mountain. Jackson subtly wove Aragorn’s lordship into the first trilogy, but in the Hobbit films he pulled no punches in emphasizing the potential monarchy of Thorin, heir to the throne of an exiled people. In An Unexpected Journey, when Balin recounts the Battle of Azanulbizar, and ends by saying of Thorin, “There is one I could follow. There is one I could call king,” it matters that Balin endorses Thorin to be a king, specifically. Like Aragorn, this is not about being a general, or a captain, or just a really cool guy. Generals and captains have their own legacy and lore, but it isn’t the same as saying king. As a result, Balin’s line is one of the movie’s first nods at what will become perhaps the defining moment of that trilogy – Thorin’s charge out of the mountain in The Battle of the Five Armies. Look, if Thorin leading his company out of the mountain, Dain yelling “To the king! To the king!” and Gandalf telling Bilbo “They are rallying to the king,” doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion in you, I’m sorry to hear that you’re missing out. It’s moments like that that make me believe in the Stendhal Syndrome. And, again, it matters that Thorin is a king – not just a really cool guy. It’s why a charge led by 13 dwarves turns the tide of a battle – it’s a charge led by the king. And, if you think that scene is a pandering Hollywood/Peter Jackson-big-screen-fanboy moment, think again. Just what do you think Tolkien had in mind when he wrote:
Suddenly there was a great shout, and from the Gate came a trumpet call. They had forgotten Thorin! Part of the wall, moved by levers, fell outward with a crash into the pool. Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire. Rocks were buried down from on high by the goblins above; but they held on, leapt down to the falls’ foot, and rushed forward to battle. Wolf and rider fell or fled before them. Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him.
“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley. Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dain to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves. Once again the goblins were stricken in the valley; and they were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses.
That scene is not the unfaithful work of Jackson (though there are plenty such scenes). And it works precisely because Thorin has completed his journey to take up a long-lost throne.
To draw one more example from Tolkien, King Theoden may actually be the most impressive of all. When we first meet Theoden, he is a weak and failing old man, but he is a king nonetheless. But even after being freed from the curse on his mind, his aging mind and body must grapple with tough decisions that will directly affect the fate of his people. And it’s a bleak situation, but Theoden’s people trust him –
“Who am I, Gamling?”
“You are our king, sire.”
“And do you trust your king?”
“Your men, my lord, will follow you to whatever end.”
And in the events that follow in Theoden’s story, he validates this trust in moments that call for unparalleled valor, first leading them for wrath and ruin at Helm’s Deep and then playing the central role in my personal favorite moment of the third movie – the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Again, these moments are not all total figments of Jackson’s imagination – read the books. And I think it’s because Theoden is such a heroic king that his character has been one that has kept a special place in my love of Tolkien’s works. It matters that an aging man, with everything stacked against him, and a bunch of people counting on him, steps up when it matters and leads his people with courage in a way that only a born king could. It’s why Eomer says “To the king!” when they charge into the valley at Helm’s Deep, not “Charge!” and it’s why I end my articles with “Forth now, and fear no darkness!”
But this extends well beyond the world of Tolkien. Other creative minds have utilized the power of a king bravely leading his men into battle, inspiring them to do more than they ever thought possible. We are not far removed from St. Crispin’s Day, on which Henry V rallies his men with one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“We few, we happy few…”), coming in the same play as “Once more into the breach.” It matters that the freaking King of England is saying those things to his men, rather than some other military leader. Even in a movie like 300, you can’t tell me it doesn’t matter at least a little that Leonidas is the King of Sparta, not just another badass. It’s one of the (many) reasons that Themistokles is not nearly as compelling in Rise of an Empire as Leonidas is in the first movie.
But there’s even enough aura around the idea of a king that the king might not even have to demonstrate this martial skill in order to inspire.
For example, the character of King Baldwin IV in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, portrayed by Edward Norton, strikes a particularly kingly figure in a surprising fashion. It’s implied that Baldwin has had great victories before, but by the time of the film’s events, he is a masked leper that might seem more suited to the chess board than to the battlefield. But yet his character still commands respect, and there’s a very clear sense in that movie of how important his role as king is. So much so that it’s pretty freaking boss when he gives the order to assemble the army and he leads the men out to meet Saladin. So much so that Baldwin’s character has a few YouTube tributes – pretty remarkable considering he’s a fairly minor character in a movie widely regarded as a bust.
And, as Henry, Leonidas, and Baldwin show, these notions don’t just come from the minds of fanciful writers. History continues to tell the story of great kings and their heroic deeds.
So, to recap before we take this to the next level:
- Kings are ubiquitous in our imagination and have a very potent effect on our mind and emotions
- The inspiring traits of a good king are particular to kings; kings are inspiring in different ways than captains, generals, etc.
- Part of the reason for this is that king’s are “meant” to be kings – not just anyone can put on a crown and fulfill the role of monarch
- Courageously leading men into battle is perhaps a king’s finest hour
- But even just a strong presence can inspire
Now what I’m about to do will upset you if you’re one of those people who can look Dostoevsky in the face and say “Your overt use of Christianity to resolve Crime and Punishment undermines the rest of your genius.”
I think we were made to be this way. I think our admiration of the great and noble king tells us something about ourselves that points us to the message of the King of Kings.
From a literary and historical standpoint, the Bible is very concerned with kings, both good and bad. The lives of a number of kings are well-documented, including their heroism in war. The Bible’s authors write of how King ____ went out to face King _____, emphasizing the ruler’s place as commander in chief. When they became discontented with judges and prophets, the Israelites stopped trusting in God’s plan and demanded that the prophet Samuel anoint a king, a move that changed the course of Israel’s history.
Despite Israel’s disobedience, the authors of the Bible describe ways in which Yahweh guided kings to great victories, and gifted some of these men with the ability to inspire greatness in others. However, kings ultimately fell short – some had famous vices and sins, some were flat out bad men, and in the end Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign rulers. But, as Biblical prophecy and history shows us, ruler after ruler eventually meets their end. The Babylonian Empire gave way to the Persians, the Persians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Romans, and so on and so forth.
Yet the Jewish people still expected the Messiah to come in the form of a great military monarch, one who would ride into Jerusalem on a mighty warhorse. Instead, they got a humble Jewish carpenter, who walked about Judea preaching a message of love and forgiveness. They got a savior who rode to the sight of his greatest victory on a donkey. Instead of a crown of gold and jewels, he wore a crown of thorns.
But he is no less a king. In fact, the Bible calls Jesus the King of Kings. For he, like the kings we so admire, fills a role that no one else could, he takes on the toughest of challenges and the heaviest of burdens, he conquers the most dangerous of enemies, he speaks words of inspiration and calls us to be courageous and have faith, in his name is power, great deeds are done in love for him, and, as a nice added bonus, he’s part of a long lost line of kings.
So what do I think we learn from Tolkien, Jackson, Scott, Snyder, Shakespeare, Branagh, Caesar, the chroniclers, the Gospel-writers, the Apostle, Lewis, Mallory, Charlemagne, and Jesus of Nazareth?
We long for a king. We are made for a king.
As much as we yearn to be free and to celebrate our individualism, I think there is an equally powerful force in the human spirit to be ruled. Not to be subjugated, or oppressed, or captivated, or ordered about by a tyrant – indeed, I think the bad king is one of our most potent fears – but to be led by someone that is greater than we could aspire to be. To be guided by one who assuredly leads the way. To serve someone worthy of honor and glory and praise.
We might go to the ends of the earth for an inspirational leader like Jeanne d’Arc or Richard Winters, but we would try to go even further for a leader born to wear the king’s crown.
But, just as the people of faith in Hebrews 11 were longing for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” we are longing for a better ruler (that is, a heavenly one). This impression upon our souls leaves us with a recognition of great earthly rulers, and these men instill in us a version of the inspiration received from Christ. And this innate love for great kings points to the love and to the king that can overcome anything.
It is when a person casts off their desire to be the master of their fate and the captain of their soul, when they recognize the futility of their efforts, when they deny their longing to rule over their own life, that they cast their eyes to heaven and see the one true king, the king of glory, and say,
“There is one I could follow. There is one I could call king.”
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria