Tag Archives: Children’s Literature

The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain

downloadWhen I reviewed the film The Prince and the Pauper I wrote that the movie was a reasonably faithful adaption of the book, though I hadn’t read it since I was a child. After reading it again, I have concluded that it is indeed a reasonable adaption, though there are a number of notable differences that I had forgotten.

The Prince and the Pauper, published in 1881, seems to blend the Cinderella archetype with the rich-person in-disguise-who-discovers-how-people-really-live archetype.Tom Canty is a beggar and Edward is the son of Henry VIII. When they meet by chance and exchange clothes, they realize that they look alike and that apart from the clothes, there is no way to tell who is prince and who is beggar (though Tom’s mother can tell them apart later – unlike everyone else, she truly knows her son and his unique quirks; there seems to be no one who truly knows Edward).

This brings up another theme: the difference between a king and a beggar is only the clothes and the way he is treated by others.

But after Tom and Edward change clothes, the prince goes outside and is mistaken for the beggar and thrown off the palace grounds while all the nobleman assume Tom is really the prince. They account for the fact that he denies being the prince, and that he seems to have forgotten important information, by assuming that he has temporarily lost his mind. Meanwhile, Edward goes about London in his ragged clothes proclaiming that he is the prince and people assume likewise that he is mad.

But Edward’s identity of prince is so deeply ingrained in him by education that it honestly never occurs to him that people might find it difficult to believe he is who he says. He is the prince and so he assumes that it should be enough for him simply to declare himself. he doesn’t adapt particularly well to his new surroundings and requires a rescuer in Miles Hendon, a soldier of fortune. Tom, on the other hand, initially denies being the prince, but adapts to the situation fairly well. He learns how to put on lordly manners, pumps his whipping boy for important information he ought to posses as prince and learns to minimize the kind of talk that leads people to assume he’s deranged. He even learns to like being prince and awes the lords and ladies with his wisdom in administering law.


original illustration by Frank Thayer Merrill

The Prince and the Pauper is a charming story, a bit like a fairy tale and like fairy tales, with a dark underside. Twain is very interested (as he was later in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) in the injustices of the period, the superstition, the abject poverty and crime, the religious intolerance that would lead two Quakers to be burned at the stake, the death penalty for even the most paltry of crimes. It’s an eye opener for the young prince. It’s an eye opener for Tom Canty, as well, who discovers that the laws seem to be upheld simply because they are laws and not because any one actually believes them to be good.

It’s an historical, adventure, fairy tale. Edward has the most adventures and meets the most colorful cast of characters, like the hermit who believes himself to be an archangel, the Ruffler, who runs a gang of beggars and thieves, and Miles Hendon. Hendon is good-humored and dashing, likes to talk to himself cheerfully and essentially adopts Edward. He likes his spirit, even if he does think his mind is touched, and is resolved to cure him. Hendon’s story is entirely left out of the film. He’s a younger son who’s even young brother has stolen his home, his title and his beloved. In a mirror situation to Edward, no one believes Miles when he returns home and he is declared to be a lunatic and driven away.

What makes Hendon a good man is not that he believes Edward, but that he is kind to him. That seems to be another theme of the book. It is not important to know who a person is or have faith in them or know position, but it is important to treat them with humanity. There is a judge who pretends that the item Edward is thought to have stolen (he was framed) is worth less than it is, because all thefts over a certain price are punishable by death. There is the kind cottager and her children who feed Edward. They don’t do it because they believe he’s the prince, but simply out of goodness.

Twain must have been fascinated by the concept of exposing the injustices of the past by having previously cloistered royalty suffer the sting of their own laws, because he reused the concept in his 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (which set out to satirize Arthurian chivalry and somehow ended on a note of horrifying technological warfare and despair). In A Connecticut Yankee, there is a stranger who gains power (like Tom) and is able to bring a stranger’s fresh eyes to reshaping the unjust and illogical laws, while King Arthur travels the countryside disguised as a beggar and learns about the injustice and poverty and disease rife in his land (even nearly being sold into slavery).

The_Prince_and_The_Pauper_-_14-175A significant difference between the book and the movie is that in the book there is no plot by the Earl of Hertford to steal Edward’s throne. In the book, he is a good and humane man, nothing like Claude Rains’ schemer (though I’m not complaining about the changes, since I love it when Claude Rains schemes). Tom’s mother and sisters are likewise removed from the movie for the sake of simplicity and the more episodic nature of the book is streamlined.

I noticed that under the title of the book, the caption promised one hundred and ninety-two illustrations. It’s not a long book, so there must have been more illustrations than text! Too bad my copy didn’t have any of them. I would have liked to have seen them all.


Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Books


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Treasure Island – by Robert Louis Stevenson

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

After reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and several other of his short stories, I found that I especially liked the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson. He is a beautifully descriptive writer, but not in a dull or prosy way so that the action suffers; he’s writing is exciting, evocative, with imaginative stories and images you don’t forget. And since I’d never read Treasure Island, I thought that it should be my next Stevenson book. I was curious, because Treasure Island is so often dismissed as children’s literature, if it would have a different tone or if the writing would be different.

It was different, though not in a bad way. Partly, this is because Treasure Island is written in first person from the perspective of a boy who is the son of a landlord whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. His tone is more straightforward than, say, Mr. Utterson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which is ironic, since Mr. Utterson is supposed to be a staid lawyer, but there is something so outlandish in Dr. Jekyll’s experiments that it unfailingly elicits the most extraordinary descriptions in response). But Jim Hawkins writes in a much more direct fashion. I don’t recall noticing his prose as much. The story is the most important thing.

Which is as it should be since Stevenson had children – boys – in mind when he wrote his first novel. In his book The Art of Writing, Stevenson says that he had the assistance of his step-son and father in writing the novel and they both gave him many ideas. He tried to write exactly the kind of book a boy would want to read or that he would have wanted to read. There were no women involved, he said.

But though Treasure Island is less gothic and more straighforward, there are still some wonderful moments, like when Long John Silver comes to parley with Captain Smollett and his small band, who have taken refuge in a stockade. He and the captain sit outside and smoke their pipes in silence, waiting for the other to begin while everyone within the stockade is so curious about the scene playing before them and the confrontation that occurs that they’ve left their posts – where they’re supposed to be watching for treachery – and are instead watching the two implacable men in fascination.

TI-treasureAnd I love this description, that recalls the haunting, vivid quality of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jim is thinking about how Captain Flint killed the six men who helped him bury the treasure all those years ago.

…I was haunted by the thought of the tragedy that had once acted on that plateau, when that ungodly buccaneer with the blue face – he who died at Savannah singing and shouting for drink – had there, with his own hand, cut down his six accomplices. This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.

Having seen the 1950 Disney live action version of Treasure Island multiple times (it was a childhood staple), it was interesting to read that Long John Silver is supposed to be blonde, with a face like a “ham.” Sometimes I can picture it and sometimes I can’t. I’ll often see Robert Newton, instead. Another thing I noticed is that in all the movie adaptions I’ve seen of the book, I don’t recall any of them including the scene where Silver tries first to talk a sailor into joining the mutineering pirates and after failing, hurling his crutch at the man so that it breaks his back and then hurling himself on his broken back and ferociously stabbing him to death. If they’d ever included that in a movie, I don’t think the audience would have ever recovered…at least not long enough to hope he gets away.

Long John Silver is less sympathetic in the book. He’s always scheming and playing both sides of the field, and if he can get away with it, perfectly willing to betray anyone. There is not much of that sneaking affection for Jim that redeems Silver in the movies. He is a treacherous buccaneer to his core…just a far more savvy and smart-talking one than your average, run-of-the-mill pirate. He has some education and plans on retiring as a gentlemen after he gets his share of the treasure.

TI-parrotJim Hawkins is an interesting character, too. He’s really not a very reliable boy. He’s always running off on some whim and abandoning his duty, though somehow it always turns out that his disobedience has saved them. At the end of the book, Captain Smollett acknowledges that Jim has saved their lives, though remarks that he would probably never go to sea with him again. Ironically enough, Treasure Island is a book that seems to reward moral ambivalence. Even Long John Silver gets away at the end, with a bag of gold. And Ben Gunn is also a murderous pirate too; who gets to return home and achieve a degree of celebrity and gold (though he spends his share in a matter of weeks).

In the introduction to my copy of Treasure Island, John Seelye argues that the description of Treasure Island matches that of California, which seemed a unique idea to me. Stevenson had traveled to California and never to the Caribbean, so I guess Stevenson just used his memory of California to describe his famous island? While reading the book, I had to confess that Seelye had a point. There are azalea bushes, nutmeg trees, oaks, pines, sea lions, rattle snakes and even very large trees with red bark that suggest Redwood trees. It’s not very Caribbean in flavor. If ever another movie is made of Treasure Island, they should shoot it in Northern California.

Here is Stevenson’s descriptions of Redwoods.

The third [tree] rose nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood; a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage, and a wide shadow around in which a company could have maneuvered.

The treasure is buried beneath this tree.

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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Fiction


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