The idea is endemic to western civilization. From the Christ myth to King Arthur and King Richard, to Aragorn, Isildur’s Heir, it repeats. In our myths, our fiction, our movies. It’s the same story, though it takes two versions. In one version, the version that makes for the best stories, there is evil in the land. And there is, somewhere, a good king. The good king is lost, or imprisoned, or off on crusade. Evil sweeps over the land. Some fall into despair, others hold out hope for the Return of the King.
Often, the king does return. He smites the evildoers and raises up the loyal and the righteous and all the land lives in peace and happiness. He is /such/ a good king that he manages not only to train his heir to be a good ruler but also to prevent any succession disputes for at least three generations.
Truly, a good king.
The other version of a good king puts the king in the background. They don’t need to fight for the throne (not publicly, anyway). They simply are the king. Somehow, (magically) they manage to hold the throne, keep the feuding nobles happy, ensure the safety of the common people, and make everything so wonderful that unicorns farting rainbows practically dance down the street. They are rarely the center of the tales, but tales happen around them. Good Queen Bess, le bon roi Henri, Jonathon of Tortall, and others both real and fictional.
In both versions of this story, the ruler (it’s usually a king, but it could be a queen, a noble, a president, or prime minister) attains mythic proportions and the ability to fix everything, for everyone, simply from their own inherent goodness. Or something like that.
It’s a fun story, but it’s not real.
Bluntly, It’s Escapism
Kept to its proper place, within the pages of novels and frames of movies, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of escapism does us all good sometimes. But we need to remember that it is escapism.
We don’t. We bring it into our lives, our choices, our politics. To different people in the US, Bernie, Biden and Trump have all been ‘the good King’. Before Trump, it was Obama, hailed as the one who would bring change and fix everything. It’s the new principal hired to fix the failing school. The new boss or CEO. A ‘real world government’ to replace the UN or any number of other people or ideas that will magically ‘fix’ everything. Sometimes it’s us.
The Good King presents us with two options. Maybe three. We can cast ourselves as the good king, the savior who will fix everything — from our local theater group to our relationships to the entire damn world. Or we can cast ourselves as one of the grateful subjects content to play out our small adventure or romance or coming of age tale against a backdrop where we don’t need to worry about the big picture or the people around us because ‘the good king’ will take care of it. In some versions of the story, we can cast ourselves as the good king’s loyal companions, fighting at his side to win the ballot box, the funds for the renovation, etc etc.
No Matter What Role We Pick, It’s a Bad One
It’s a great story. A very seductive story. One where, no matter what role we play, we don’t need to take responsibility. If we are the good king, whatever we do is good by virtue of our being the good king, the one who will make everything right. The Good King doesn’t fail his subjects or screw over his contractors — or if he does, it’s ‘good business sense’ and therefore good. Or we let the king take care of it all, and not worry about it. Or we let the good king tell us what to do, and know that as long as we follow orders we are on the side of ‘right’ and it will end in ‘happily ever after.’
The Good King makes a good fantasy.
In real life, no one person will bring/maintain peace and prosperity and unicorns in the streets. In real life, we must all take responsibility for building and maintaining a society which is just, which is peaceful, which is free, which is accountable. And all the other things that a good society should offer (and doesn’t).
Check yourself. Especially in election years but also all the time. If you think you meet the Good King, send them off to weed the garden and back to work.
And maybe find some new fiction to read and myths to enjoy. Getting some variety in your mental diet can be a huge boon to your mental processes.