The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

The Prince and the Pauper is a novel by Mark Twain.  It is about two little boys that look very much alike, even born on the same day:  one is Tom Canty, a beggar; the other is Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales.  Just for fun, they exchange clothes, but before they can make the switch back, Edward, thought to be a beggar, is expelled from the castle, while Tom is forced to take his place and possibly become the king.  Eventually, Edward, with the aid of Miles Hendon, is restored to his position just in time to be crowned king of England.

In real life, Edward, as the son of Henry VIII, would eventually become Edward VI when he was just nine years old.  When he was fifteen years old, he became ill and died.  I found this to be a little depressing. How much fun are we supposed to have watching a movie about a child that dies?  Sure, we don’t see the death in the movie, but we know it’s coming.

One of his playmates is Lady Jane Grey.  Yikes!  After Edward died, she got to be queen for nine days while still just a teenager, was deposed, and had her head chopped off by Queen Mary.  Boy, what fun imagining those two children playing together!

In the preface, Mark Twain says that this story, which has been passed down by word of mouth through the generations, may actually be true.  If so, then as the story unfolds, we wonder if the person that was eventually crowned Edward VI was actually Tom Canty, and that Edward was condemned to spending his life as a beggar in the slums of London.  Not knowing how the story will end as we read it, we are supposed to care whether Edward will eventually be crowned king, or whether the person history refers to as Edward VI was just an imposter.  But if one will be king while the other will be a beggar, what difference does it make which is which?

When a child becomes king, there will typically be a Lord Protector that gets to make all the decisions and rule for him until he reaches his majority, which the person that history refers to as Edward VI never did. Therefore, that Lord Protector will make the same decisions and rulings regardless of whichever little boy sits on the throne.  In the novel, a great deal is made of how Edward, who has literally placed himself in someone else’s shoes, is so outraged by the suffering and injustice that he witnesses, of the way people are flogged, pilloried, and mutilated, that he resolves to abolish the unjust laws and rule with mercy.  But if the Lord Protector will be making all the decisions for the boy king, such empathy will seem to be of small consequence.

In any event, can we really believe that Edward will suddenly have empathy for the poor and downtrodden?  If you or I saw people having such punishments inflicted upon them, we would be deeply moved.  But I have doubts about the effect this would have had upon someone like Edward, given what we learn about Humphrey Marlow, the whipping-boy.  Tom learns from Humphrey that whenever the prince fails at his lessons, Humphrey is whipped in his place, since it would be improper for the master to whip the prince himself.  And by “whip,” I do not mean a spanking, but rather the use of a scourge.  When Tom is alarmed to hear of this, Humphrey is perplexed, for he is regularly whipped several times a week, so often did Edward make mistakes.  And we further gather that Edward never had any sympathy for Humphrey, for the latter is surprised when Tom shows concern for him in this regard.  In other words, by this time in his life, Edward would doubtless have become inured to the suffering of Humphrey on his account.  As a result, Edward would more likely have come to be insulated against against any inclinations for empathy, and thus no more moved by the suffering of the great unwashed than he was by the regular beatings inflicted on his whipping-boy.

Mark Twain notes that the punishment of boiling prisoners in oil was repealed during the reign of Edward VI, but whether that was supposedly the result of Edward’s experience as a beggar, the influence of the Earl of Hertford, Lord Protector, or merely a decision made by Parliament is not clear.  Other than that, the empathy that we are expected to believe was acquired by Edward pretty much comes to naught, since he died before many of those fine sentiments were able to yield a practical result.

The people that produced the 1937 movie based on this novel probably had the same misgivings that I did, for they changed the story in several ways.  First of all, they eliminated the whipping-boy, thereby making it more believable that Edward would by moved by the suffering of others.  Second, they changed the story so that it would seem to matter who sat on the throne. In the movie, if Tom Canty is crowned king, the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains), who is evil and has figured out that Tom is an imposter, will be the Lord High Protector; whereas if Edward is crowned king, the Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who is good, will be the Lord High Protector. So, what we really care about is which Lord High Protector will rule England while Tom or Edward is still just a child.  Or to put it differently, if Tom is crowned king, then that would explain all the evil things that happened in England until he died at fifteen; and if Edward is crowned king, then that would explain all the good things that happened in England until he died at fifteen.  But, of course, it’s the same English history either way.  In any event, in real life, Norfolk remained imprisoned in the Tower of London during the entire time that Edward was king, while the Earl of Hertford became the Lord Protector, so it appears that the screenwriters of this film got things backwards.

But wouldn’t it be an injustice for Tom to sit on the throne while Edward is forced to be a beggar? Not really.  Edward has no more right to be a king than Tom does, for the simple reason that no one has a right to be a king.  So, while it would be sad to think that Edward would be forced to live in poverty and be beaten by Tom’s father, John Canty (Barton MacLane), it would be just as sad to think of Tom having to return to that fate.

This brings us to a third major change in the story.  The movie further ups the ante by having Hertford send the Captain of the Guard (Alan Hale) out to find Edward and kill him, so that no one will ever know.  So, it is more than just a question as to who must live his life in poverty, for Edward’s life is at stake.  In this way, the movie does a better job of making us care whether Edward will succeed in proving who he is than the novel does.  In the end, Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn) kills the Captain of the Guard, Edward becomes king, and Tom is made a ward of the crown.

This movie would be easier to watch if you didn’t know anything about British history. But as it is, I kept being jerked back and forth between what really happened regarding Edward and what happens to him in this story.  How happy can we be that Tom Canty escapes poverty by becoming a ward of the crown when we know that there was no such person, while countless British subjects did continue to live in abject poverty and suffer from brutal laws and punishments, something that no facile happy ending in the movie can make us forget.

Now, I realize that it is at this point that many people will take exception, maintaining that it would be a wrong for a commoner to be crowned king while the true heir to the throne is denied his seat upon it. Although we fought a revolution to get out from under the rule of George III, establishing a democracy for ourselves, I often get the sense that a lot of Americans still hanker after monarchy.  They are mesmerized by stories about the British royal family, wishing they could bow and scrape before a majesty or a highness right here at home.

Back when people were making a big deal about Princess Diana, I remember Cokie Roberts saying that it is every little girl’s dream to be a princess.  Is that really true?  If so, I had no idea.  But then, as Thackery noted in Vanity Fair, “if Harry the Eighth or Bluebeard were alive now, and wanted a tenth wife, do you suppose he could not get the prettiest girl that shall be presented this season?”  As for me, I certainly never had a dream about being a prince, so I thought this might be a girl thing.  But in the novel, Tom Canty dreams of such.

By and by, Tom’s reading and dreaming about princely life wrought such a strong effect upon him that he began to act the prince, unconsciously.  His speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of his intimates.  But Tom’s influence among these young people began to grow now, day by day; and in time he came to be looked up to by them with a sort of wondering awe, as a superior being.  He seemed to know so much! and he could do and say such marvellous things! and withal, he was so deep and wise!  Tom’s remarks, and Tom’s performances, were reported by the boys to their elders; and these, also, presently began to discuss Tom Canty, and to regard him as a most gifted and extraordinary creature.  Full-grown people brought their perplexities to Tom for solution, and were often astonished at the wit and wisdom of his decisions. In fact he was become a hero to all who knew him except his own family—these, only, saw nothing in him.

Privately, after a while, Tom organised a royal court!  He was the prince; his special comrades were guards, chamberlains, equerries, lords and ladies in waiting, and the royal family.  Daily the mock prince was received with elaborate ceremonials borrowed by Tom from his romantic readings; daily the great affairs of the mimic kingdom were discussed in the royal council, and daily his mimic highness issued decrees to his imaginary armies, navies, and viceroyalties.

So, I guess there are both boys and girls that fantasize about being princes and princesses, and when they grow up, they follow the doings of British royalty with some of that longing still in their hearts.  In their minds, whatever miseries were suffered by the common folk in the sixteenth century, the privilege of living in a kingdom and being ruled over by a monarch must have made it all worthwhile.  For such people, this story in The Prince and the Pauper would likely be engaging, for they would think it a great injustice should the wrong person become king.

But even so, what is that injustice compared to that inflicted on the subjects of whoever it is that wears the crown?  That Edward’s father, Henry VIII, was a cruel and murderous tyrant makes it clear just how terrible it can be to live in a country ruled by a king.  And just as Henry VIII chopped off the heads of tens of thousands of people, including a couple of wives that were inconvenient to him; so too did Queen Mary chop off the head of Lady Jane Grey because she was inconvenient, in addition to burning lots of people at the stake; and so too did Queen Elizabeth chop off quite a few heads, as well as having many of her subjects drawn and quartered.  I could go on, but you get the idea: these people were a bunch of psychopaths.  Are we supposed to imagine that Edward VI, had he lived to be an adult, would not have chopped off quite a few heads himself?  In the novel and the movie, Edward’s experience as a beggar supposedly made him wise and merciful, but we can believe that only because he never got to be old enough to be vain and tyrannical like the rest of his family.

Earlier I questioned why Mark Twain would have chosen to tell this story about a child that died when he was fifteen, thinking that to be a little depressing.  But had he picked some other monarch to have these adventures, one who grew to be an adult and ruled for many years, this story would have lost its charm.  It is only because Edward never lived past his childhood that this story has appeal, for it allows us imagine that the Edward, as an adult, would somehow have retained the innocence and goodness he had when he was a child, just as many imagine that the world in general would be a better place if adults could somehow be like children.  Jesus was given to this notion himself when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  But as St. Augustine pointed out in his Confessions, if we say that children are innocent, it is only because they are weak, for if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.