The Archetype of The King
Thoughts on the fictional and personal leaders that I look up to.
In his book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore describes four male archetypes. While I have talked before about what I think makes a man, I think the topic deserves further examination. Our society demonizes all forms of masculinity, which paradoxically means that those heroes that do escape the All Canceling Eye of Sauron somehow embody the worst excesses of the gender, so called “toxic” masculinity. The true platonic idea of a man, embodied by these four archetypes, lies in the midst of the feminine beta that society tells us to emulate and the alpha that is lionized by the media. And at the center of this middle way is the archetype of the King.
Kings in our world, and the upperclass as a whole used to believe in the idea of the Noblesse Oblige. In exchange for loyalty, status and a portion of the harvest, the nobility were obligated to protect and serve those that they had status over. Those who were the highest in society deserved that position not only because of their strong moral character (we will get to that soon) but because they dedicated their “privilege” to the betterment of all society.
No one fits this archetype better than Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. Born to an ancient line of kings, Aragorn does not loudly demand his birthright, but rather spends his younger years in the harsh wilderness learning the skills required of a king and protecting the little people of the Shire, who could not help him reforge his kingdom even if they knew he existed. In the trilogy itself, Aragorn does not demand honor and recognition; he is happy to serve as second-in-command to Gandalf as the leader of the fellowship and as a companion to Frodo, rather than as a ring-bearer himself. He treats the Hobbits, considered lesser folk by other men, with respect and kindness. He is competent, knowledgable and willing to humble himself. Traits that those who would be modern kings, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, lack.
Yet when the time comes to be the leader, Aragorn does not flinch away from difficult choices. He leads the suicidal charge in the final battle at the Black Gate, and challenges Boromir’s prejudices towards the elves at the gates of Lorien. He shuts down Eowyn’s simping almost as soon as he recognizes it. Aragorn is able to be firm and push forward the fruition of his own ideas and beliefs. Traits that those who would be modern kings, the Obamas and Donald Trumps of the world, lack.
Aragorn is joined by many other, more flawed literary examples of this archetype. Paul Atreides, who threads a middle ground between violence and apathy to win the affections of the Fremen on Arrakis and earn his birthright (and revenge), is perhaps the most perfect king after Aragorn. Stannis Baratheon, from A Song of Ice and Fire, is far more flawed, but what stands out to me about his tale is the mid-story recognition that the archetype requires putting duty before station, the horse before the cart as he would say. Baldwin of Jerusalem and Balian, both from Kingdom of Heaven, make it onto this list as well, for their emphasis on Kantian ethics. The list contains many more characters, historical and fictional, that I will not go into detail about here: General Grant, Fidel Castro, Baelor Breakspear, Justinian, Cyrus and Taran from the Chronicles of Pyrdain.
In my own life, enduring examples of the King Archetype are rare. Leaders I looked up to as a child and an adolescent, like camp counselors, coaches or athletic team captains always failed in a crucial way that made it impossible to look up to them as a King. One counselor I had at leadership camp when I was 13, Peter, who stood by me late into the afternoon until I hit enough bullseyes to finish my eagle, remained unemployed fo yearsafter finish his physics degree. My highschool cross-country quit after one too many failures at the state meet. Half the team captains I served under in college were alcoholics or drug addicts. And that is not to say that any of leaders were bad people, they just failed to live up to the archetype.
Of course reality is not myth, and no human will ever perfectly live up to a fictional archetype. But it is concerning to me that all the men who I would call king have failed me. I wonder if this was true in the past, or a result of a combination of the general immorality of society and its tendency to expose facts that tear down any possible positive figure. Maybe Frederick Barbarossa diddled little kids; we’ll never know because of the relative lack of information spread in the middle ages. Or maybe we really are less virtuous than our ancestors.
In my own life, I aim to grow in strength and character so I can serve as a king for others. But equally as importantly, I will cease to try and rid people of their role models, even if I don’t think the role models are particularly good. People need kings to look up to, even if they may not truly be virtuous.
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