I understand that this is a kind of a set phrase to express the hope that his spirit has found peace after death, but I don't understand why subject-auxiliary inversion occurs, and the "May" comes first in this example.

The same sentence structure can be seen in some other examples too like the below ones.

  • May the Force be with you.
  • May God bless you!

Is there any grammatical rule? Are there any other examples that follow the same sentence construction?

  • 1
    There's no rule to follow. It's a minor clause type called an 'optative', which has "may" in pre-subject position. It means "I hope/pray that he rests in peace". Note that unlike closed interrogatives, there is no uninverted counterpart. – BillJ Jul 21 '20 at 8:04
  • Thanks. I didn't know anything like optative mood. – Takashi Jul 21 '20 at 9:00
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    It's not really a 'mood' (in modern English), but a type of clause. Other examples include "Long may she reign over us" and "May all your problems be quickly resolved". – BillJ Jul 21 '20 at 9:13

None of these expressions are common and, except in the fixed phrases all should be avoided and replaced by the "if" or similar phrase. They are all rather dated.

These inversions occur in many subjunctive phrases, particularly when they are expressing conditional phrases:

Should you arrive late... (= If you arrive late)

Had he not forgotten his ticket... (= If he had not forgotten his ticket)

In non-conditional forms this inversion is seen also with "may" and in fixed expressions:

Long live the king!

May the king live long.

It is also worth noting the similar:

Let the king live long!

Which is most well known in the expression

Let's (do something).

(but the pronoun has object form here)

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