Writing and King Richard III

410px-Royal_Arms_of_England_(1399-1603).svgAs an English major the re-interment of King Richard III last Thursday seems more than a British peccadillo.

The estimated £2.5 million spent on the re-interment could well have fed the poor, sheltered the homeless, or otherwise been spent on something beneficial to people who need help. Apologists say the value of publicity gained by the re-interment far exceeded the actual dollars spent. Maybe so, but these March rituals portend something else.

Unfolding events since Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012, while important, play second fiddle in the orchestra of history. I’m referring to the historical events which frame English literature in the period between the Norman Conquest, more specifically, the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066, and the end of the Middle Ages which Richard’s death on Aug. 22, 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field bookends.

The New York Times reminds us Richard was slain seven years before Christopher Columbus sailed for the Indies and “discovered” a New World. While Americans today don’t readily acknowledge it, our invasion of a continent with a civilization arguably more advanced than that of Europe, and our systematic genocide of the population, is far bloodier than Richard III’s two year reign could ever have been. In many ways, European descendents have made the Americas a much less civilized place than the pre-Columbian societies it removed through disease, war and dispossession. While society has addressed some of the challenges of the Middle Ages, there is a lingering savagery that persists beneath the veneer of our cosmopolitan apartments, condominiums and McMansions.

We distance ourselves from the larger world, and in so doing, consent to the continued plunder of natural resources and spoiling the commons. Passive aggressive behavior yields a lifestyle, and for many, that is enough. If one listens to what people say in public, all controversy is brushed aside under a guise of getting along. We know not what people say in private.

It is accepted, beyond a reasonable doubt, the bones re-interred at Leicester Cathedral were those of King Richard III. People from multiple disciplines worked together to frame a convincing story of how Richard lived and died. To date, no one has disputed it. It seems unlikely anyone will.

In this process we were reminded that the biased history of Richard, written by scribes with a vested interest in preserving themselves, and apologists for the Tudors that replaced the Plantagenet line of monarchs, clouded much. With Richard’s bones an old saw re-emerged.

As writers, there must be a reality behind the stories we tell. From time to time, we set stories aside and confront it—whether in the bones of a long dead warrior, or something else. We make a commitment to those truths by our vocation.

While stories may be well crafted, if we stray far from what is real, the tale will never become us. Perhaps that’s why recent events surrounding that long ago death still matter in a society the king could not have envisioned.

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