It seems odd that, after centuries of agitation forequality, so many countries still have social systems in which some “royal” person is considered to be at the top. The word “royal” derives from the French word for king – and, although France no longer has a monarch, many other advanced countries still do. In fact, some of the world’s most prosperous and stable democracies, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands are still theoretically governed by human sovereigns.
Then there is that remarkable entity, the “United Kingdom,” where I myself was born, in the reign of King George V. But, before I was old enough to take much of an interest, there was an Edward, and then a sixth George. The latter was particularly appealing, because he and his wife had two daughters – two princesses – not much older than myself. The elder one eventually became Queen Elizabeth II – and, although hardly a monarchist, I was one of the thousands who thronged central London to catch a glimpse of her, in her ornate horse-drawn coach, on the day of her Coronation, June 2, 1953.
On that same day, it was announced that the summit of Mount Everest had been reached for the first time. The two triumphant mountaineers were a New Zealander, Edmond Hillary, and a Nepalese, Tenzing Norgay – both subjects of the Queen.
To commemorate the latter occasion, I wrote a poem, which was published in the literary magazine of University College, London, where I was then an undergraduate. As you will see from the first two stanzas, however, I lamented that this “conquest” meant a regrettable loss of what had been one of the few remaining Earthly symbols of the gloriously unattainable:
The Goddess of Endeavour lies a-ravished,
And virgin snows befouled in Honor’s name –
Last of terrestrial glories, lost forever –
Everest, I am humbled in thy shame.
In darkness now enshrouded lie thy bastions,
Forlorn, thy frozen pinnacles look down –
Eternity, her sanctuary broken,
Broods upon thy desecrated crown.
My next encounter with the Queen did not come until 30 years later, when she visited Santa Barbara, where I had already been living for ten years. She and her husband, Prince Phillip, happened to come at a time of very stormy weather, which forced changes of many plans, including that of sailing in the Royal Yacht from Long Beach to Santa Barbara. They had to come instead by air.
But the one impression I retained, after watching her arrive to speak at the Courthouse, to a crowd gathered there in the Garden, beneath a multitude of umbrellas, was how carefully the Queen took each step. It made me realize how, even (or perhaps especially) when you’re a Queen, you are constantly moving about, in public, on unfamiliar surfaces. A Queen must always, in every sense, be watching her step.
The only other Queen I have had the opportunity to observe in person was the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, the last wife of King Hussein. It was 1991, and I was on an unusual tour of the Middle East with a group of “EarthStewards” – an organization devoted to such worthy projects as improving international relations by making direct people-to-people contacts. We had flown from New York to Jordan, and were next going to Israel, hoping somehow to ease the enduring tensions between these neighboring countries.
This lady, who had already been Queen for 13 years, received our group of 23 in an ornate room in her Palace. There were, however, no seats, not even for Noor herself. So, we all stood in a sort of arc, facing her. What impressed me most was her remarkable poise. Princess Grace of Monaco had already been dead for a decade, but it struck me that those two beautiful American women had both achieved the fairy-tale status of marrying into foreign royalty. After she spoke to us as a group (very diplomatically, about desiring peace with Israel) there was a question time. I wanted to ask if, after having risen to her current position, she still had any unfulfilled dreams. But I was never called on, and so never got to question a Queen.
I myself had other dreams, however – as indicated by the third and final stanza of my Everest poem, quoted above:
But if forbidden beauty’s violation
Must to the record add, of human crime –
If Earth’s most cherished citadel must crumble –
Why could not that conquest have been mine?