Last night I saw The Lion in Winter , the movie about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons gathered together for the Christmas holidays. The threats, the manipulation, the backbitingimagine if George and Martha had had three children, and crowns.
One line of dialogue struck me in particular. Eleanor is with her sons, two of them being the future kings Richard and John, when Richard pulls out a knife. John squeals “He’s got a knife!” to which his mother replies:
“Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a littlethat’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.
Aside from two factual errorsthe 12th century saw a splendid renaissance, and syphilis had yet to appear in Europethe quotation is brilliant. Contra Marx and other theoreticians of history, war’s ultimate cause lies like a disease in the human heart. Sin plagues us and we cannot escape. In fact, the whole play is a study in original sin . A family that might, as their mother says, have “so much to love each other for” spends its Christmas festering in hate.
From the end of the quotation above, you might think that redemption lurks on the horizon. But Eleanor is just as conniving and unforgiving as the rest. Her love for Henry and Henry’s love for her cannot overcome their own selfish desires, and so love only acts as salt in the wounds they inflict. At the end there is a kind of peace, more wrought by fatigue and impending departure than by forgiveness, and we last see the king and queen sailing away and promising to see each other at Easter.
There is no sign that things will stand differently then. The royal succession will still be up for grabs, and one imagines the whole drama playing out all over again. Because, contra Eleanor’s hopes, they cannot change the world on their own. Left to their own devices, they might not kill each other, but they can do much worse. Without the operation of some kind of grace, all will remain in their depravity.