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The Book of Holy Kings
Valentin Tomberg - The Emperor
The boat responded Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar The sea was calm, your heart would have responded Gaily, when invited, beating obedient To controlling hands T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
When I was a boy there was a certain bookshop I used to love going into, down a cobbled street in the middle of Didsbury, the South Manchester suburb where I lived. It had a lamp-lit room that I found particularly compelling. You’d see Persian rugs and brightly coloured cushions laid out on the floor between the bookshelves. Lamps hung from the ceiling like little moons and an atmosphere of contemplative peace suffused the space.
Those lamps came into their own on damp, cloudy afternoons, and it would seem to me then that the room was aglow with an inner light, and that a latent force - hidden, but real and strong - was about to burst through and erupt into the world. I always felt on days like this that something extraordinary might happen, and one Saturday it did. A small hard-back book high up on the shelf caught my eye. It had an electric blue spine with gold lettering. The Book of Holy Kings, it said.
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I took the book down. It had a golden griffin emblazoned on the front, which reminded me of a book I had been given at school some years before when I was learning to read (see image above). Intrigued, I sat down on a patterned purple rug and started to read.
I had not yet read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But when I did and when I reached the part where Lucy reads from the Magician’s Book, I saw straightaway that my encounter with The Book of Holy Kings had the same style and stamp. As soon as I started to read, it felt like I was alive and present on the page, playing an active part. This was Lucy’s experience too:
It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, ‘That is the loveliest story I've ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years.’
Those holy kings, as I was reading, seemed more real and credible than anyone or anything else in the whole wide world. It wasn’t that I had forgotten my surroundings – the lovely lamp-lit room, for instance – but rather that they had somehow been transmuted by the text and included and welcomed in its all-embracing flow, as if they belonged in the story, as if everything beautiful and good found its home within those pages.
So what was the book about? Once again, I run into the same problem as Lucy:
But here part of the magic of the Book came into play. You couldn't turn back. The right-hand pages, the ones ahead, could be turned; the left-hand pages could not.
"Oh, what a shame!" said Lucy. "I did so want to read it again. Well, at least, I must remember it. Let's see... it was about... about... oh dear, it's all fading away again. And even this last page is going blank. This is a very queer book. How can I have forgotten? It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, I know that much. But I can't remember and what shall I do?"
I read the book through in one sitting. Like Lucy, I wanted to read it again. It was priced at £1. I raced home and grabbed my pocket money, but when I got back the shop was closed. I hadn’t realised how late in the afternoon it had got. By the time Monday after school came around, the book had been sold. I asked Mr. Griffiths, the bookshop owner, when it had been bought and by whom, and he said it had been a Greek monk that very morning, a visitor to the local Anglican church, The Shrine of King Charles the Martyr. He would be half-way to Athens by now. I was devastated and have never come across the book since or been able to track it down. Even from that first evening, I struggled to recall the details, though the flavour has stayed with me always, like a brand upon the heart, calling continually from the depths of my being and the heart of the Real.
Looking back now, I’d say The Book of Holy Kings was a kind of pseudo-history in the manner of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. It featured twenty-five kings and mingled history with legend. It often presented myth as concrete fact, so figures such as Aeneas and Joseph of Arimathea were given the same status as Alfred the Great or Richard III. It was a series of intense, poetically charged meditations with a page-length line drawing - a picture of the relevant king - at the start of each chapter. I am not a visual artist so I cannot reproduce these images, but I do intend, over the next twelve months, to rewrite and recreate as best I can that numinous text I found and lost in an afternoon four decades ago.
Why am I doing this? ‘In my beginning is my end’, as Eliot writes in East Coker.The Book of Holy Kings would not have surged back into my mind had I not been meditating on the shape and form this final Secret Fire essay should take. The last chapter, you see, was about a future king who will restore both the Holy Roman Empire and our island’s link with the imperial crown. This ties in with and sums up everything that has been written here this past year. There can be no renewal and renovation unless the Emperor returns. The Wasteland will not bloom again unless this dynamic, catalytic symbol becomes once more visible and active. But for now, he is invisible and inactive. We sense this and miss his presence. We want him back, and this is why Lewis says:
Because ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book.
No-one understood the consequences of the Emperor’s absence better than Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973). The imperial crown, he reminds us in Meditations on the Tarot …
… was the principle itself of authority, from which all lower authorities derived not only their legitimacy but also their hold over the consciousness of the people. This is why royal crowns one after another lost their lustre and were eclipsed after the imperial crown was eclipsed. Monarchies are unable to exist for long without the Monarchy; Kings cannot apportion the crown and sceptre of the Emperor among themselves and pose as emperors in their particular countries, because the shadow of the Emperor is always present. And if in the past it was the Emperor who gave lustre to the royal crowns, it was later the shadow of the absent Emperor which obscured the royal crowns and, consequently, all the other crowns - those of dukes, princes, counts, etc. A pyramid is not complete without its summit; hierarchy does not exist where it is incomplete. Without an Emperor, there will be, sooner or later, no more Kings. Where there are no Kings, there will be, sooner or later, no more nobility. When there is no more nobility, there will be, sooner or later, no more bourgeoisie or peasants. This is how one arrives at the dictatorship of the proletariat (sudras), the class hostile to the hierarchical principle, which latter, however, is the reflection of divine order. This is why the proletariat professes atheism.
In Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the resuscitated Merlin is astonished to learn that there is no longer an Emperor to turn to as ultimate arbiter and as guardian and protector of Christendom. To combat the evil weighing down upon England, he asks Ransom if aid might be found outside the country:
‘Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?’
‘There is no Christian prince left.’
‘Then we must go to him whose office is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor.’
‘There is no Emperor.’
‘No Emperor …’ began Merlin, and then his voice died away. Presently he said, ‘This is a cold age in which I have awaked …’
The Emperor gave orientation and focus to the whole structure of European society. Everything depended on him. It all revolved around him - the hub of the wheel, the unmoved mover, ‘the still point of the turning world.’ This primordial fact, this basic reality, is acknowledged by Lewis in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Susan is trying to find a loophole in the Deep Magic so that Aslan does not have to sacrifice himself on the Stone Table:
‘Oh Aslan! Can’t we - I mean, you won’t, will you? Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’
‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made this suggestion to him again.
Things Fall Apart without the Emperor, and this is exactly what has happened in stages these past few hundred years. The evil became manifest with the murder of Charles I in 1649, gathered pace with the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and reached a grisly culmination (for now) with the slaughter of the Tsar and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. There has been no visible Emperor in the East since then and no counterpart in the West since the death of Blessed Karl of Austria four years later. A vacuum has been created and a wound made, ‘a wound which speaks’ as Tomberg put it so well.That wound is well and truly festering now, and the vacuum is being filled with all manner of foul and anti-natural phenomena. It was inevitable, once the Emperor was removed, that things would develop like this. This is exactly what Tomberg foresaw. Chop off the head and the body soon falls. St. Paul, as we noted in our essay on Pope Benedict and R.H. Benson, was aware of this a long time ago. ‘The Man of Lawlessness,’ he predicts in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 is only able to appear once ‘he who restrains’ (Katehon in Greek) is ‘taken out of the way.’ The Church in both the East and the West has traditionally identified this Katehon with the figure of the Emperor, and if we look at the path of history since 1922 we may conclude that there is a very sound basis for this. We have seen since then the rise of totalitarianism and the Second World War, followed by a specious form of secular stability in the West, which after 1991 was said to herald the ultimate triumph of liberal values, but which always lacked spiritual ballast and is now collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.
So what happens next? It seems unlikely that those who led us to this pass will either repent or see the error of their ways. The odds instead are on them doubling down and continuing to invert everything good, holy and true. Charles Coulombe calls it right in this discussion on the principles of Jacobitism. The Revolution, he says, passes through three stages - revolt against throne, revolt against altar, and revolt against reality itself. The current direction of travel in government, academia, media and business - certainly in the West - tells us that we have undoubtedly reached the last of these three stages. The body is not just dead but decomposing.
Yet the Emperor is alive. Somewhere he lives and breathes and it does not matter if he is currently aware of his high status or not. One day he will be, as we all will be. The post of the Emperor is essential and integral to the natural order of things - the Tao, the Logos, the very warp and woof of reality. As such, it is impossible for the Emperor not to exist. Ransom was only partially right therefore when he told Merlin that there is no Emperor. ‘There is no visible Emperor,’ would have been more accurate. There is an Emperor, but like the Holy Grail or the Hidden Imam of Shia Islam he is occluded and invisible. Our vision has become spiritually opaque and we have lost the ability to perceive his presence. That is why the Emperor is absent from the public realm. Yet his existence and authority does not depend on public recognition or acclaim. Tomberg asks us to look closely at the classic portrayal of the Emperor in the Tarot deck:
The Emperor is alone in open air in an uncultivated field and with a tuft of grass as his only company - save for the sky and the earth. The card teaches us the arcanum of the authority of the Emperor, although it may be unrecognised, occult, unknown and unappreciated. It is a matter of the crown, the sceptre, the throne and the coat of arms being guarded without any witnesses other than the sky and the earth, by a solitary man leaning against the throne, with his legs crossed, wearing a crown, holding the sceptre and clasping his belt. It is authority as such, and it is the post of authority as such which is expressed here.
The Emperor, wherever and whoever he is, may be a descendant of a previous Emperor or he may not. The choice belongs to God alone:
The post of the Emperor does not belong any longer either to those who desire it or to the choice of the people. It is reserved to the choice of heaven alone. It has become occult. And the crown, the sceptre, the throne, the coat-of-arms of the Emperor are to be found in the catacombs - in the catacombs - that means to say: under absolute protection.
The Emperor is in the catacombs, therefore, silent and concealed for now, under the protection of the Most High until the time is ripe for him to re-appear into the light. We should not doubt that this will one day happen, though it may take many years. The imperial idea is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, particularly in the lands which once formed Christendom. 324 years elapsed, for instance, between the fall of the Empire in the West in 476 AD to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800. In all that time there had been no Emperor in the West, not on the physical plane at least. But the idea, the symbol, the archetype - all these lived on, until the time became propitious again for a tangible, concrete restoration. Writing in 2023, we are now just over 100 years since the deposition of our most recent Emperors, Blessed Karl and Tsar Nicholas. Faith and focus are what matters, not timescales - a balanced, constructive positivity that sees past the ‘falling towers’ of The Wasteland to the ‘controlling hands’ that will reshape things after the collapse:
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
What will the Emperor’s return be like? How will we perceive it once our vision has been cleansed and we are able to glimpse the gods again, as we did in the Golden Age? Something, I imagine, like the scene painted by Charles Williams at the start of Taliessin’s Return to Logres:
The seas were left behind;
In a harbour of Logres
lightly I came to land
under a roaring wind.
A princely figure steps on to the shore. His bearing is at once noble and regal, humble and gracious. He is without retinue, yet his kingly nature is clear. He looks at the land lovingly - with tenderness, affection and warmth. He kneels down, kisses the sand and touches the shingle with the palm of his right hand. Then he stands erect, turns slowly in a circle and makes the sign of the cross over everything in sight - sea, sky, sand, mountains, trees - even yourself, though you don’t believe he can see you, hidden as you are behind three jagged, wind-blasted rocks.
‘That’s why I’ll follow him,’ you say to yourself. ‘That’s why he’ll reawaken, restore and renew the West. He comes to save and to serve, and not in his own name, for he has set aside his name and personality, but in the name of the Emperor Beyond the Sea - the Emperor behind the Emperor - who sent him.’
He walks forward into his realm and you see as he does so that he is holding a book in his left hand. You recognise it by its electric blue cover and the griffin on the front. It is The Book of Holy Kings.
That’s when you step out from behind the rocks, into the wind and sun and the big bowl of sky. You walk forward to meet the Emperor as one world ends and another begins, forward through the deep past and into the future that has been calling you for decades and has now become flesh and blood before your eyes. Further up and further in you go:
We must be still and still moving
into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Geoffrey Bles, 1964), p.85.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Faber and Faber, 1972), p.20.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p.86.
Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg), Meditations on the Tarot: A Study in Christian Hermeticism (Jeremy. P. Teacher, 2002), pp.95-96.
C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (Pan Books, 1965), p.180.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (MacMillan, 1955), p.76.
Meditations on the Tarot, p.86.
Meditations on the Tarot, p.98.
Meditations on the Tarot, p.96.
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland and other Poems (Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 37. The epigraph at the top of this essay is from p.39 of the same edition.
Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres (Oxford University Press, 1948), p.3.
Four Quartets, p.32.