Twelfth Night and the Death of the King
I spent much of the Holy Nights revisiting a brace of books I haven’t read for decades, Jessie L. Weston’s anthropological excavation of the Grail literature, From Ritual to Romance, and the book that inspired it, James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Toward the end of Advent I watched (most of) director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (it stinks), and I write about the Grail in my most recent book, Sophia in Exile. In addition, I’ve taught college courses on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur and on the Holy Grail as a cultural icon (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, The Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the Grail, John Boorman’s Excalibur, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—none of which stink—and so forth), so I have considerable personal experience and investment in this mythos and its intertwining with folklore, folk magic, literature, and religion. But why did it come back to haunt me now, like a literary Jacob Marley shaking its bookish chains at me in The Age of the Crown known as Corona?
Then it dawned on me: the last (first) time I read these works was during my first Saturn return (when Saturn finds its way back to the place where it was at one’s birth—about 29 years or so). Well, here I am at my second Saturn return (do the math). As any astrologer would tell you, a Saturn return is, in general, NOT FUN, and Covid aside, it still has not been a fun year. But it hasn’t been all bad. On the other hand, this all occurred to me during what used to be the ancient Roman time of the Saturnalia. I love coincidence.
I first started reading Frazer and Weston after my initial encounter with T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Wasteland. Eliot (who, incidentally died 27 years ago today—darned close to a Saturn cycle)drew on both works for his poem. He published the poem in 1922, having recently undergone both his first Saturn return (he was born in 1888) and lived through the horrors of World War I. We have also been moving through a sort of Wasteland, a time when, as Eliot describes in the poem:
He who was living is now dead We who were living are now dying With a little patience
At this time of the year, at least where I live, death is everywhere. Nothing grows. We exist between in-breath and out-breath at the still point. We require regeneration.
Regeneration, among other things, is precisely what happens at the celebration of Twelfth Night. My family celebrates it every year, complete with poetry and song, wassail and cake, the election of the King of the Bean, and chalking the door in anticipation of the arrival of the Three Kings (who arrive on Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, of course). William Shakespeare, at the request of Elizabeth I, wrote his play Twelfth Night, or What You Will, to be performed at the royal Twelfth Night festivities in 1601/02. The play is a subtle representation of figures and notions of the celebration of the festival—a veritable feast of fools, it features a cadre of motley fools, a butler who assumes himself elevated to royalty, and a brother who (seemingly) returns from the dead, not to mention a wealth of extraordinary (though often melancholy) songs Shakespeare wrote for his clown Robert Armin to sing (trivia: when I was a Waldorf teacher and directed the play, I wrote tunes for Shakespeare’s words—so I can officially say the two of us were collaborators. One example from my treatment, recorded with Corktown Popes, can be found below).
According to both Frazer and Weston, such rituals as the election of the King of the Bean, are remnants of earlier agricultural rituals which tied the vitality of a god or king (or god-king) to the fertility of plants, animals, and humans. As Frazer, connecting Twelfth Night to the Roman Saturnalia, writes,
“We have seen that in Italy, Spain, and France, that is, in the countries where the influence of Rome has been deepest and most lasting, a conspicuous feature of the Carnival is a burlesque figure personifying the festive season, which after a short career of glory and dissipation is publicly shot, burnt, or otherwise destroyed, to the feigned grief or genuine delight of the populace. If the view here suggested of the Carnival is correct, this grotesque personage is no other than a direct successor of the old King of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels, the real man who personated Saturn and, when the revels were over, suffered a real death in his assumed character. The King of the Bean on Twelfth Night and the medieval Bishop of Fools, Abbott of Unreason, or Lord of Misrule are figures of the same sort and may have had a similar origin.” 
Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat was deeply influenced by his reading of Frazer. I’m not exactly sure the symbolic sacrifice was really grounded in ritual murder—I think the ancients could handle metaphor—nevertheless, it makes for some fascinating speculation and forays into theory. This sacrifice motif is treated in the camp classic of British B-horror, 1973’s The Wicker Man, which ends with the immolation of a nosy and Puritanical police officer. But the film is an otherwise wonderful treasure chest of British folklore and folk-magic custom. My middle child (the middle of nine, poor boy) saw the film a while ago. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “It’s basically our house...but without the human sacrifice.” Progress!
Weston connects the death of the King to the death and resurrection of St. George in the Mummer’s Play, often performed at Twelfth Night—a theme also found in the medieval tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. I like the connection of the flourishing of the land to the vitality of the king, especially as a literary device, and I love the way this is illustrated through the Grail romances in the image of the Fisher King and in Boorman’s Excalibur (more profoundly influenced by Weston than even his alleged source, Malory), but I think Frazer and Weston both miss the significance of resurrection in this mythos. Coming back from the dead—and not a replacement by a substitute (rather a Robin, the Hooded Man or Doctor Who approach to things), as if contract negotiations didn’t work out—is the key that unlocks the magical door here. And this is what makes these stories so profoundly Christian and fit to be connected with the feast of Twelfth Night.
I love the combination of the holy, the mythic, the folkloric, and the atmosphere of conviviality and carnival that colors the Christmas season—but why twelve days? I’m not sure anybody really knows, lost as these traditions are in the mists of time and observation. Nevertheless, one would not need to dig too deeply to see the correlations between the Twelve Days, the months of the year, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the twelve Apostles—not to mention the twelve signs of the zodiac (and don’t even get me started on the mysterious connection between Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter and the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years). Number symbolism is very important in the Christian tradition.
So raise a glass this Twelfth Night; have a slice of cake. Maybe you’ll get the bean. Maybe the Green Knight will pay a visit. Enjoy your resurrection.
And so, in conclusion, I can think of no better envoi than that of Robert Herrick, my patron saint and Lord of Misrule Emeritus:
TWELFTH NIGHT: OR KING AND QUEEN
NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.
Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg'd will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.
Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb's wool:
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.
Give then to the king
And queen wassailing:
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
An episode from great BBC documentary series Tudor Monastery Farm
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.
1. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, abridged edition (New York, 1927), 586.