The basic plot of "The Man Born to be King" is straightforward. A sage enrages his king with a prediction that the latter's ancient line will die, and his successor will "be no better born than I." The king later becomes lost during a hunt and is sheltered by a humble cottager, whose wife dies giving birth to a son whom a voice identifies as the predicted heir to the throne. The frightened king then seizes the child and orders his squire Samuel to throw it and its ark-like cradle into the river (in Grimm's "Giant with Three Golden Hairs," the king does this himself). Following an obvious biblical precedent, the ark lands safely, and the boy is raised by an affectionate miller and his wife, who encourage the boy's love of nature.
Many years later, the now-aged king and his retinue stop at the couple's cottage, and the king learns of Michael's mysterious origins in a royal cradle, whereupon he commands Michael to enter his service, and orders the older but still-compliant Samuel to murder him. As Samuel prepares to stab Michael in the forest, however, he hears an ominous ringing of bells and hastily abandons his task. Michael is taken in by a kindly abbot, but later visits the king's court and is ordered into service once again. The tenacious king makes a last attempt, and sends Michael in the company of the royal henchman Hugh to the castle where the king's only daughter Cecily happens to be staying, with a sealed order for Michael's murder.
As in "Atalanta," merit and romantic attraction blunt villainy and death. As Michael waits to deliver the fatal sealed message to the king's senechal, he falls asleep in the garden where the Princess Cecily is walking with her maid Agnes. Both women find Michael attractive, and Cecily resolutely changes her father's sealed instructions to order a royal wedding rather than Michael's death. Faced with this fait accompli, the king suddenly and unaccountably repents of his sins and accepts his daughter's union with Michael, now considered "of an ancient name / That needeth not the clink of gold." The implausibly reformed king even decides to share power with Michael, whose popular origins make him a successful reforming sovereign.
Morris's tale is actually a sophisticated recasting of three sources: "Dolfinus a Wise Emperoure," an English version of a tale from the Gesta Romanorum, "Li Contes Dou Roi Coustant L' Empereur" from Nouvelles Francoises en Prose du XIII Siecle, and "The Giant With the Three Golden Hairs," from Grimm's Fairy Tales. Morris expands considerably his sources' descriptions of medieval town and country life, deepens the internal reflections of several characters, and adds emotional resonance to their reactions. He invents, for example, the king's initial conversations with the sage, which test the latter's honesty and courage, and introduces the death of Michael's mother in labor and his father's subsequent grief as a partial rationale for the latter's reluctant willingness to let the king take away his child.
Morris further emphasizes Michael's democratic origins, and underscores the obvious biblical echoes of the king's order to throw Michael's ark-like cradle in the river and its subsequent rescue by devoted foster parents. Morris also creates a moving farewell speech by Michael's foster mother when the king orders Michael into his service, and adds a passage in which the boy loyally praises his foster parents and forest home. In the "Contes Dou Roi," the king personally tries to stab Michael to death. Morris's king employs henchmen for such deeds, and the narrative then explores their ambivalence and self-hatred in some psychological detail.
Finally, Morris grants an extended role to the Princess Cecily's companion Agnes. It is she who first discovers and praises the sleeping Michae1, ("This one must be from Paradise"). She then plucks from Michael's waistband the order for his death, reads it, and vigorously encourages Cecily to subvert that order.
Brief Critical Remarks:
"The Man Born to Be King" is essentially a maturation myth, in which ruthlessness is thwarted, merit triumphs over pride, and youthful ardor leads to royal marriage (all of this without prejudice to the reformed tyrant). It is also one of The Earthly Paradise's few tales of relatively uncomplicated and immediately successful love, and the only one in which good fortune abounds to a male hero who does not strenuously seek it.
When the tale ends, its auditors seem aware that its real moral focus is not the rather ingenuous young man "Born to Be King," but his tenacious predecessor "The Man Who Kept Trying to Kill the Man Born to be King." This oppressive figure eventually does learn to value a successor of humble origins, of course, and the lovers do marry as they desire. No consideration ever seems to be given, however, to the possibility that Cecily might rule the kingdom herself, with Michael as her loyal consort.
"The Man Born to Be King'''s most attractive features are its evocations of the freshness, emotion, and minutiae of a medieval ambience, its success in portraying the drama stirred in ordinary lives by the arbitrary decrees of fate and governance, and its pervasive suggestions of a recurrent human potential for sudden cruelty. The tale's suspense and adventure plot, by contrast, reflects few of Morris's deeper preoccupations and concerns.
See Bellas, 184-98; Boos, 72-76; Calhoun, 133-34, 137-43; Kirchhoff, 159-60; Oberg, 39-40, 42-43; Silver, 67.
The handwriting and tone of a rudimentary draft of "The Man Born to Be King" in the Fitzwilliam Museum Library (F25) suggest that it may date from the period of Morris's early drafts for "The Defence of Guenevere." The final copy for the printer, in Huntington Library M. S. 6418, retains the tetrameter of this early draft, but adds many psychological and moral nuances, and its echoes of Keats and careful descriptions of a medieval ambience are characteristic of early Morris poems.