I had no interest in the royal wedding. Really. When I read the cover of a tabloid while waiting in a grocery checkout line weeks ago, a tabloid announcing that Kate Middleton was pregnant with a new royal, I smiled. If true, how nice, how brisk, realistic, happy. Wedding then baby, no waiting around. If not true, how actionable. The lawsuits will fly. I paid for a canister of oatmeal so huge I can’t hold it in one hand, philosophically ruing the vicissitudes of age while eyeing forbidden mint patties in the candy rack, the royal wedding forgotten.
Then on Wednesday, the day before the event, the wedding crossed my mind briefly, pleasantly. That’s all. But by Thursday afternoon some usually dormant autonomic process awoke and began a gear sequence that would be at full bore by midnight. In 12-step terms, I admit I was powerless to stop it, although I don’t know that for sure because I didn’t try. I just stopped writing the short story I was working on at midnight, went straight to Google and typed “royal wedding.” I didn’t know why.
I read everything, knew where Elton John would sit and why Tony Blair was not invited. (A petty gaffe so beneath the dignity of the occasion, I decided.) I watched a video of the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking sagely, warmly, a bit simplistically, about marriage in general and this marriage in particular. I approved the music (lots of Elgar – I like Elgar) and the scripture to be read by Kate’s brother, captured by paparazzi earlier in Italy, wearing a dress to a party. I spent some time wishing people would stop reading tabloids so the paparazzi would have to get real jobs and stop tormenting celebs. By 1:30 I’d memorized the order of service, faced the fact that I read the covers of tabloids in checkout lines and realized that I’d be up all night. I had to watch the wedding.
But why? What drove me to stay up until 4:45 a.m. gleefully watching a wedding ceremony I already knew by heart, in a building I’ve studied, visited and photographed, between two people I don’t know and will never meet? As events unfolded (At last, the braid-bedecked princes are in a car, waving!) I analyzed (And there’s the queen in another car in a yellow outfit, waving!) my situation from (Ah, the beautiful bride in a white gown gets in a car, and waves!) two perspectives.
The first is personal. I don’t know these royal people, but it’s still personal. The first thing I ever memorized was a nursery rhyme called “Bobby Shafto,” derived from events in the life of a man who died in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1737. (Well events in the life of the woman he didn’t marry, who then died of a broken heart, but I didn’t know that at two.) My first literatures, the verbal images on which I would imprint like a duckling, were English nursery rhymes. I now know that the “fairy tales” I loved derived from German sources, but I heard them in English and imagined their settings to be like the English settings in my picture books.
Every day at school we sang “God Save the Queen,” only the words were changed to “My country tis of thee, etc.” For the coronation of Queen Elizabeth we were released from school to watch the pageant in the homes of classmates who had tv’s. We had a tv and my mother served lemonade in paper cups as we ogled the pageantry on a tiny screen in its huge cabinet. In language and literature, Americans are English. Well, okay.
But language and literature cannot account for the other billion people raptly watching the spectacle over subtitles. No, something deeper than mere culture was afoot, something old-brain, primitive, wired. And many awkward interviews with Americans watching the event in several countries nailed it.
“Why did you fly thousands of miles at great expense to watch the royal wedding on a giant TV screen in a park?” the reporters asked in England and Germany.
And the responses were all identical. First, deer-in-headlights panic, then confused monosyllables followed by a single phrase – um, well, you know…“because it’s a fairy tale.” Everybody interviewed said exactly the same thing. Entranced, they were hard-put to define their behavior and ultimately just blurted out the truth. So a significant percentage of (predominantly female) sentient life on the planet (including me) was, if only briefly, mesmerized by a fairy tale. Deliberately, willingly, happily hypnotized. Why?
It was history weeks ago, but I keep worrying the question. Yes, the obvious reproductive imagery. Healthy young alpha female and male, mating ritual, inherent promise of new life. The planet is so overrun with humans that it can no longer support our numbers, the crucial ozone layer is dissolving under attack by human-produced poisons, thousands of animal and plant species are near extinction or already obliterated by human overpopulation, and yet we still get starry-eyed over a mating ritual? Yes, we do. It’s ridiculous, but it’s wired. Perhaps the hope is that maybe this time we’ll get it right and then we can do something else?
Or maybe the fascination subscends the obvious to go deeper. “Fairy tales,” a catch-all phrase for the myths that frame our realities, are encoded messages from prehistory. They wander in dreams; we understand their imagery without words; they are the common allegory of our species. So of course our species will (mindlessly, if I’m any indication) be drawn to a fairy tale spectacle like this one, conveniently broadcast around the entire planet in full color. (Ah, the crimson! Ah, those hats!) A carnival of imagery, a feast of rampant symbolism, the spectacle nourishes our deepest need – for story.
So good for England and every other culture that acknowledges the need for story by training and maintaining the actors who must shoulder story’s burden. It’s not easy. These people are, after all, just people, and the burden is often intolerable. But like the ancient bards memorizing and reciting the human tale, or the ancient Maya carrying time itself in tumplines that incise their foreheads, these actors carry the whole weight of our story across ages. They are ludicrous, unreal, an embarrassment to reason. But reason pales and disintegrates against the power of story, and vanishes like thin smoke at the first herald – “Once upon a time…”