This is a magical word, a word of resonant voice, redolent of wonder, royalty, the more-than-real. It rolls in with the soft regal thunder of the /r/ and drives forth with the mid-front vowel moving smoothly into the liquid /l/, which is then closed off with the pensive, appraising hum of /m/. There is nothing abrupt, nothing infra dignitatem; it is smooth like a sweep of a cape or a wide wave of a wand, or the expansive swing of a hand’s commanding gesture displaying the full breadth of a realm. It is firm as an elm. And it has the added expense of a silent a in its heart.
We do use this word today, and not always in especially regal and evocative contexts; it shows up in public realm, political realm, realm of possibility, realm of theory, and such like, as well as in the stock phrase the coin of the realm, but into each of these contexts it imports an air of something beyond the mere local scope. As it does such yeoman service it is like a king incognito, or like the god Krishna serving as charioteer to the warrior Arjuna: the majesty will out.
What is a realm? Not a simple place; it is an expanse, a region, a land, even a new universe unto itself. A realm is something you may enter (perhaps the realm of possibility) or move into or descend into (perhaps the realm of fantasy); things may be within or in a realm, or they may even be beyond or outside it; something may open up new realms for inquiry, investigation, or the like, as though pushing through a mass of coats at the back of a wardrobe and discovering the entry to a new kingdom.
Kingdom? No, realm. But what is the difference? Surely a realm is a region ruled over by a king? After all, it comes from Middle French realme, reaume, reaulme (and similar spellings), which traces back to Latin regalis “regal” – “of a king”. Over history, the l has sometimes been present, sometimes absent from the word, and for some time not standard in the pronunciation; but we may say this l is like the sceptre, and it will ever return. Not only kings and queens have sceptres, however; any territory ruled by a sovereign can be called a realm – the Grandy Duchy of Luxembourg, for instance, is a realm. Realm can also cover parts of a country’s territory that are not part of the country itself but are owned by the country.
More broadly, of course – in the extended uses – a realm is, as Visual Thesaurus puts it, “a domain in which something is dominant”; in that sense it has synonyms in land and kingdom. It can also be a domain of knowledge – also called a region. And I would say that in general it is the bounded (but not always precisely bounded) expanse that is more key to the semantic essence of this word rather than the specific monarchy – or any specific borders.
After all, we do not talk of the animal realm rather than the animal kingdom; if Disney had a magic realm it would not be quite the same as a magic kingdom; things do not enter the kingdom of possibility or open up new kingdoms of knowledge. A kingdom has a king, castle, borders; kingdom is the state of being a king, too. A realm may have a king and castle and borders, but those are not the focus; it is the pervasive majesty and dominion and the contiguity that are more important – the power and dominion distinguish it from land or region, but dominion is not quite as grand as realm (and in Canada it’s a fairly common word, found in the names of such things as banks, grocery stores, and such like, due to the official use – until 1982, and in fact still occasionally – of the name Dominion of Canada).
Realm also has specialized usages, such as in the sciences – a major biogeographic division – and in geometry – a hyperplane – as well as in traditional Buddhist cosmology, in which there are several possible realms of rebirth. One of those – lower than that of animals but higher than that of hell – is the realm of hungry ghosts. And a well-known reference to that is In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a best-selling book about addiction by Gabor Maté, a physician who works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Most of the other top results for realm on Amazon.com, however, fall into two realms: that of fantasy novels and role-playing games (Forgotten Realms, Into a Dark Realm, Keeper of the Realms) , and that of New Age mysticism and magick (Realms of the Earth Angels, Wisdom of the Hidden Realms, Practical Advice from This Realm and Beyond). Which brings us back to the wondrous power of this word, like a purple velvet curtain that encloses, occludes, but parts to reveal and to allow entry. Consider the magic it brings in to set the tone in John Keats’s “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
It is, too, a word long associated with the ancient glory of England. Queen Elizabeth I referred to her land with the term – for instance, “I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the Realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christendom,” and “I … think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”
But the best place to hear it in this role is in John of Gaunt’s great speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. I enjoin you to listen to John Gielgud deliver these lines; the video, on YouTube, is ten minutes long, but this speech is near the beginning – be warned, though: you will want to watch the remainder. Here is the passage, which so thoroughly seasons the dish that this word and a few others will ever give you the savour of it:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth.