NOTE: This essay was written during the week of the British royal wedding.
This week it’s not an understatement to say the entire world’s attention is focused on the wedding of William and Kate. It isn’t simply Brits, but Americans, the Japanese and for all I know the natives of the Amazon rain forest. Everybody’s tuning in.
I was surprised at my own fascination with the event considering I prefer to get my news on a need-to-know basis. Thus far the only news I feel compelled to know about is a tornado landing in my backyard. Then I might switch on the Weather Channel but otherwise I like to remain uninformed. So what’s the attraction, even for a news-phobe like me?
I don’t think it’s simply the massive spectacle of the event. We’ve got Jerry Bruckheimer and James Cameron for that. I rather think it has to do with the fact that we’re watching a real live fairy tale unfold before our eyes. Every child in the English-speaking world was lulled to sleep (or scared out of their wits) by the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Handsome prince hooks up with beautiful princess and they live happily ever after. It’s hard to get past our cultural myths and nobody really wants to anyway.
But here’s the curious thing about Kate and William’s particular fairy tale. Aside from Cinderella, it doesn’t fit the stereotype. In all the stories we were told in childhood, it’s always a resourceful but penniless lad who gets to marry the beautiful (aka rich) princess.
The fairy tales always mention a king whose only progeny is a daughter who will inherit the kingdom. Ergo, the enterprising lad and every other lad in the realm definitely wants to get in on the action. To me it seems like a statistical improbability that every king in ancient Europe was the father of a single child and that child was always female. Did he eat his other offspring like Kronos? What’s going on here? Methinks I detect a mythical archetype which has fascinating roots in old European history. Bear with me and I’ll explain. (Or leave now before you get bored. Your call.)
Here’s the historical source of the original fairy tale that spawned all the others. Once upon a time, Europe was a peaceful land populated by farmers. (By once upon a time I mean 3000 BC before the Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans started rewriting history to suit their own agendas.) These tribes of farmers traced their family ties through their mother’s line, not their father’s. This seemed like a logical arrangement since mom could always prove a baby was hers by giving birth to it. The prospective father on the other hand could only point to the kid and say “That one’s mine” while everybody within earshot said “Yeah right, stand in line.” In these cultures, female virginity and chastity weren’t concepts that anybody found remotely appealing.
So as a result, anybody who wanted to be somebody in these farming communities had to be related to a woman with social status and political clout. If kings existed at all, it was only because their mom said it was OK.
Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, life was quite different on the Russian steppes. In terms of desirable real estate, the Russian steppes were the neolithic equivalent of Death Valley. Nobody really wanted to live there but to the local nomads (called Kurgans) it was home. They made their living by pilfering each other’s meager supplies of parsnips and yak milk. To them, pillaging was a respectable occupation. Things proceeded more or less smoothly until around 3000 BC when the arid steppes turned into a dust bowl. (Hang on, I’m getting to the point. You really have a short attention span, don’t you? Comes from too much tweeting.)
With not enough to go around, the Kurgans politely asked the most expendable portion of their population to hit the road. Now in any culture the most expendable portion of a population is always unattached adolescent males. (Now you see where this is going? If not, you really should have left when I warned you the first time.)
So these boys broke up into small bands, mounted their horses, grabbed their weapons and rode away to seek their fortunes. Since the Kurgans were the only people at the time who had figured out how to domesticate horses it gave them a certain advantage when they reached the green farmlands of old Europe. They could swoop down on a village, pilfer everything in sight and take to the hills before anybody knew what hit them.
There was just one problem with this arrangement as the Kurgan lads found out. If you keep on harassing the local villagers, they’re going to pick up their bags of wheat and move to the other side of the river where you can’t get at them. Besides, a permanent life on horseback can lead to saddle sores. Therefore the boys decided to settle down and become respectable. But how? They hung out together in cliques on hilltops like teenagers at a high school dance while they pondered this dilemma. Clearly thumping the local villagers wasn’t going to endear them to anybody. It turned out no matter how many times you whacked the peasants on the head, they weren’t going to name you king. There had to be a better way.
(Now this is the important part, so pay attention.) One day an enterprising young Kurgan decided that the only way to get ahead in these farming communities was to marry into them. So this lad, let’s call him Charming, tries sidling up to the local princess and gives her his most winning smile.
She takes one look at him, screams and kicks him in the shins. Clearly this isn’t going well. Somebody takes him aside and explains to him that the princess and her people engage in something called bathing. They also comb their hair, trim their beards (if they have any) and don’t sleep with horses. He goes to the nearest cold stream and spiffs up his appearance.
On his second try, things go a little better. She doesn’t kick him. She merely scowls but agrees to sit down on the grass and discuss the matter. He pitches woo.
“Here’s the deal, princess. This neighborhood isn’t safe anymore. You need some protection to keep away those evil Kurgans who keep swooping down and stealing all your cheese. If you agree to marry me, I’ll make sure that nobody bothers your village ever again. And I promise to take a bath at least once a year and stop sleeping outdoors. OK?”
The princess tilts her head to one side to consider his proposal. He isn’t bad looking now that he’s washed the horse dung off his face. Besides, she’s always been a sucker for a fixer-upper. “OK, it’s a deal,” she says.
And they lived happily ever after. I sincerely wish the same to Kate and William.