The second chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew records the most celebrated example of royal generosity in human history, as the Three Kings, atop their camels, and guided by the star in the east, bear their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. As this story makes plain, monarchs are customarily supposed to be vastly richer than ordinary mortals, and to give with truly regal generosity to those many unfortunates huddled at the opposite end of the wealth, power and status spectrum. But there was more to this mangered and magical moment than supererogatory royal beneficence. Even in the cosy, impromptu confines of the Christmas stable, the gift relationship was more subtle, complex and ambiguous. For there was also in it an implicit challenge, and a reciprocal presumption, that such exceptional presents, which were hardly of immediate relevance or practical utility, would eventually be matched by exceptional behaviour on the part of the recipient. And while those who offered these gifts were themselves only reputedly royal, the infant to whom they were given was unquestionably so, being none other than the future King of Kings himself. Monarchs, this story reminds us, not only make benefactions they also receive them - which adds a suggestively majestic connotation to the otherwise plebeian notion of 'give and take'.
LRB 5 October 1995 | PDF Download