Comment: Charles III must forge persona beyond inheritance

The King is left to address the traditions and the injustices inherited from the history of English royalty.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was majestic, historic and very, very long. It was a procession of prayers and hymns, buglers and solemn bagpipers all tucked into two services and one interment and watched by a global audience. But the two minutes of silence during the ceremony at Westminster Abbey was particularly moving. During that brief, quiet interlude, a small slice of the world stopped jabbering and spinning and gave in to reflection, not simply on the impact that the 96-year-old monarch had during her reign, but on what it means to love, to mourn and to ultimately carry on.

It’s the carrying on that’s always the struggle. And that’s the primary duty, the fundamental role, facing King Charles III. At 73, he is the senior citizen king, not so much a reflection of the future as he is a reminder of all the work that must be done in the here and now. His very presence is a complicating factor to all the history and turmoil and empire-building he symbolizes. He’s the white male heir at a time when white male privilege at all levels has been vigorously called into question. He is the epitome of inherited everything. He is a distillation of our contemporary grievances.

He isn’t what the world needs to see. Yet, if he is to live up to his duty, he must be seen. Eventually.

Charles follows a sovereign who reigned for 70 years, one of the most famous women in the world, a confidante of a long procession of prime ministers and often the sole woman with a voice in a room full of male leaders. Perhaps she did not say enough or do enough over her life. But still, there she was. She was widely admired for stepping up to a task for which she was only minimally prepared. And she endured. By the time she was an eminence gris, President Biden said she reminded him of his mother. More than a few of her subjects thought of her as the country’s grandmother. These characterizations, perhaps, say more about our relationship with distinguished older women — and our need to distill them into a warm and fuzzy stereotype — than it does her maternal nature.

Popular culture, from “The Crown” to “The Queen,” built her into a flawed but determined figure. A woman who grew into both her role and her symbolism. If princes and princesses are the stardust of fairy-tales, queens are the heroines. On social media, the designation is applied to any woman at the top of her game or one who has overcome obstacles. She is bestowed with a series of fire emoji in lieu of a crown.

But what is a king? What is this king? Charles is a grandfather many times over, but rarely is grandfatherliness considered a man’s defining or most memorable characteristic. He is not the unlikely hero of a fairy-tale or an example of someone who has won a hard-fought professional victory. He hasn’t challenged any stereotypes or gone where no one has gone before. He has had a lifetime to prepare for a role that he was given and so there is little reason to marvel at his readiness, only to be dismayed by any failures.

What we saw on Monday was a man walking solemnly in his ceremonial uniform behind the queen’s coffin. He looked pale and burdened, whether by grief, the lifetime of duty that he’d pledged to uphold or the simple physical challenge of getting through the day. Perhaps, his pained expression reflected all those things.

The television cameras always found him in the crowd, but the eye didn’t naturally fall on him. He was easy to lose amid the men in their bright red uniforms and their gold braid; those Royal Navy servicemen and their precise choreography. Charles was dwarfed by his towering sons, the Prince of Wales in uniform and Prince Harry in morning suit. And even Princess Anne, walking soberly with her siblings — back straight and eyes forward, her slender frame outfitted in her own polished uniform — seemed larger.

The gray-haired Charles, his eyes hollow and his mouth set in a flat, narrow line, didn’t add to the majesty of the day as much as he seemed deflated by it. His millennial children are the stars of the current royal soap opera, one that has obsessives parsing the brothers every interaction to suss out whether they’re truly on speaking terms or just putting on a pantomime of fraternal cordiality, one that has them fretting over Prince Harry’s second-row seat in Westminster Abbey. All royal aficionados can finally sigh in relief that Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, have made peace with their public. They seem like a nice older couple. She supports victims of domestic abuse. He is an environmentalist. Yet without the klieg lights of gossip, the King falls into soft focus.

But perhaps this near invisibility is for the best, at least for now. In the current times, Charles represents those who are now being asked to listen more than they speak, step out of the spotlight so others can garner a bit of attention. The aggrieved do not want to be told that mistakes were made or that the past was regrettable. They want accountability, but if that isn’t forthcoming, then a first-person apology would at least be a start. They want to be seen for who they are and for what their ancestors could have been if only they had been wholly seen.

The new king is the embodiment of so many traditions and injustices that Western culture is struggling to come to terms with — stolen land, stolen wealth, stolen labor, stolen hope — and among them is the notion of inevitability. Charles stands as the bridge to generations and generations of inevitability; all the way down to 9-year-old Prince George, the someday-king with a tousle of blond hair and fidgety energy. If the queen was lauded for comforting her subjects with consistency, Charles comes to the throne at a time when the greatest gift to some people might be inconsistency, uncertainty and ultimately, possibility.

The questions facing the culture are vast and impossible for a single man to address. He might be a king, but he isn’t a god. Nonetheless, they land at Charles’s feet. They are his to consider. The queen has been quoted as saying “We have to be seen to be believed.” That may well be accurate.

But it’s a truth that is not limited to the monarchy.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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