The compelling pathos of being a prince

I’ve never much liked the atmosphere surrounding royal visits. The anxiety many Canadians seem to feel about putting on a good show for titled foreigners and the press following them always strikes me as pathetic.

But by the end of Will and Kate’s tour, something else was at play. To me, it felt like our main concern had ceased to be about how Canada would come off, and shifted to being about how the young duke and duchess would perform. For instance, live news coverage yesterday left no doubt that everybody was rooting for William to speak well in his good-bye remarks in Calgary.

Why should we care? Maybe it’s because of a vestigial sense that if Will is to be king he’s somehow a stand-in for us. “The function of the king is primarily to represent, for his subjects, the unity of their society in an individual form,” Northrop Frye wrote in The Great Code. “Even yet Elizabeth II can draw crowds wherever she appears, not because there is anything remarkable about her appearance, but because she dramatizes the metaphor of society as a single ‘body.’”

You might reasonably protest that this antique notion of a mystical identification between the monarch and the people has long since died away, along with real royal power.

But Frye, with typical subtlety, saw how this isn’t necessarily so. “Other societies have other figures,” he observed, “but there seems to be a special symbolic eloquence, even a pathos, about the de jure monarch, whose position has been acquired by the pure accident of birth, and who has no executive power.”

So if watching Will felt, at times, like something more than the distraction of pointless celebrity, unearned wealth and random good looks, that might be because of the “pathos” Frye identified. If a prince without any practical purpose or actual power is to be anything, he’s got to keep on being a metaphor.

What job description could be more absurd? No wonder it’s hard not to hope he carries it off.