Last fall, reading too many challenging books in a row – Walter Pater, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Valéry, Yves Bonnefoy – I vowed to switch to a diet of nothing but adventure novels for boys. I have lapsed from that vow, but I did read Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881).
In memory, The Prince and the Pauper has been a fantasy novel for me, a fairy tale, which it is, sure. The title prince was a fairy tale prince living in a fairy tale palace, expelled into a fairy tale world.
But he is also the future Edward VI, his father the king is Henry VIII, and the city, explored in some detail, in 16th century London. The novel is a clever blend of standard fairy tale plots with the historical fiction of Walter Scott. It is a genuine historical novel in the enormous Tudor genre, with the unlikely events of the plot cleverly turned into the causes of all sorts of actual events, events that Twain modifies as little as possible.
Twain’s great cultural and sociological attack on Scott is in Life on the Missisippi was published two years later. Twain’s formal innovation in The Prince and the Pauper is to drop long passages by historians directly into the text, while Scott exiled such things to his endless appendices (Twain has those, too – “It was not till the end of this reign (Henry VIII.) that any salads, carrots, turnips, or other edible roots were produced in England” (!!!) writes David Hume in his History of England, quoted in Twain’s note to Ch. 7). And why not.
When I last read The Prince and the Pauper, a long time ago, I suppose I had no idea who Henry VIII was, no idea that much of anything in the book was real. He might as well have been the fairy tale king of Portugal* for all I knew. And then the rest of the historical specificity of the novel seeped away. It was a treat to revisit the novel knowing what the heck Twain was writing about.
In a nod to Don Quixote, a soldier, confronted with a boy in rags who insists he is a prince, let’s Twain acknowledge the fantasy novel that I remembered:
After a little, he went on, "And so I am become a knight of the Kingdom of Dreams and Shadows! A most odd and strange position, truly, for one so matter-of-fact as I. I will not laugh – no, God forbid, for this thing which is so substanceless to me is real to him.” (Ch. 12)
The inversion of Don Quixote is a clever touch. Scott supplies the model for the historical novel, the solid earth; Cervantes the dreams and shadows, the magic; Twain the energy, anger, and jokes.
* In Italy, Portugal is a fairy tale kingdom. See Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.