Literary Daybook, Jan. 30

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 30, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 30, 1981, Jim Dana's funeral.
-- "Voyage" (1997)
by Stephen Baxter

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1649, King Charles I of England was beheaded. The event was staged with grand theatricality, and both Royalist and Parliamentary factions hoped to gain ground from it, but none could have predicted how it would become one of the most famous convergences of literature, politics and popular culture in book history. On the day of Charles' execution, a book entitled "Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitude and Sufferings" was published and widely circulated by his Royalist supporters. Purporting to be a record of Charles' private thoughts, prayers and meditations right up until the hour of death, "The King's Book" puts a martyr's gloss to the regicide, a view that the public found so attractive that there were 20 editions within the month and 35 within the year. This popularity so fomented anti-revolutionary sentiment that Parliament commissioned a response from its champion of religious and civil liberty John Milton. His "Eikonklastes" (i.e., "Image" or "Icon-Smasher") attempts to unmask the "Eikon Basilike" as one of the "more cunning fetches to undermine our liberties, and put tyranny into an art." He blasts the "inconstant, irrational and image-doting rabble" for being "fools and silly gazers, prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of idolatry." Milton's politics inform most of the argument, but at times he speaks with the outrage of an abused writer, one horrified by the king's attempt to extend his concept of "divine right" even into copyright: In Chapter 1 Milton attacks that part of the "Eikon Basilike" in which Charles not only recites a "heathen" passage from "the vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney's "Arcadia," but attempts to pass it off as his own. As late as 1940 scholars were still debating both the Royalist claim that Milton inserted the "Arcadia" poetry himself into bogus editions of the "Eikon Basilike" as a smear tactic, and the counterclaim that "The King's Book" wasn't even written by Charles but by one of his bishops, as an attempt to dress him up in a humility he never had. The current view is that the king wrote or swiped just about everything by himself.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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