Thursday, 6 February 2014

The King's Touch

"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known."

So said Ioreth, the eldest of the women who tended the sick in Minas Tirith revealing that Aragon was the king.

In using the idea of the king as a healer, Tolkein was drawing on historical truth. The touch, even the mere presence of the king was believed to have miraculous healing powers:

"His Majesty sitting under his state [canopy] in the Banqueting-House, the chirurgeons [surgeons] caused the sick to be brought or led, up to the throne, where they kneeling, the King strokes their faces or cheeks with both his hands at once, at which instant a chaplain in his formalities says, 'He put his hands upon them, and he healed them.'" This is said to every one in particular. When they have been all touched, they come up again in the same order, and the other chaplain kneeling, and having angel [coin] gold strung on white ribbon on his arm, delivers them one by one to his Majesty, who puts them about the necks of the touched as they pass, while the first chaplain repeats, "That is the true light who came into the world."

Today, of course, we no longer believe such poppycock and mumbo jumbo (alternative medicine and most of public health practice aside). But we still clutch to the remnants of this view, that kings and princes - or their more prosaic modern day equivalents, presidents and prime ministers - by their very presence can tranforms the fortune of a place.

So when there is some disaster or other, we hear the clamouring of media voices for the minister - indeed the prime minister - to visit. As if that visit, with all its attendant disruption of the good work by people who actually can help on the ground, would bestow on the victims some special blessing and transform the fortune of the damaged place.

The Somerset Levels remain flooded. And, while most of the problem is down the the weather (and its a while since we believed kings could control the weather), it does seem that government actions - or inactions - had a part to play in make the problem worse. Ministers - even a Prince - have visited the Levels and have proclaimed it "a disaster" and opponents of those people have made a thing of it: "why hasn't so-and-so visited the area" is the cry. Done for political advantage but echoing the sad sight of people with tuberculosis crawling before the king vainly seeking a cure to their terminal disease.

Every time there is a disaster, we see the disruption of grand and important people - today's kings and princes - arriving in the disrupted and broken environment because it is expected of them, a 'king's duty'. But we know this is pointless, we know it changes nothing and is an illusion of action, a pretend salvation.

Yet still we insist on the King's Touch.


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