Dr. Seuss's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Take off your hat for the king...or lose your head!
In Seuss's 2nd book (and his first in prose), he tells the story of a young farmboy who goes to town to sell his family's cranberries.
People wear hats in the Kingdom of Didd, and Bartholomew is no exception. The law, however, states that one must remove their hat in the presence of the king, King Derwin.
Bartholomew knows that, so when the king's carriage passes through town, naturally Bartholomew removes his head covering. But the thing is...
On this particular day, every time Bartholomew removes his hat, another one magically replaces it! Which, of course, would be great fun, if only the king of all the land wasn't getting rather peeved with Bartholomew for not showing the proper respect.
Arrest this impudent trickster.... We'll teach him to take off his hat."
Wise men, hatmakers, the "Yeoman of the Bowmen" - all are called to do something, but none can. Hat after hat is removed, magically replaced with another, and dutifully counted by the king's accountant.
Finally, the Grand Duke Wilfred - the king's murderous nephew and a pompous little pissant Bartholomew's age - persuades the king that the only way to rid Bartholomew of his head covering is to let the executioner remove it...along with Bartholomew's head.
But the executioner, a rather nice guy, notes that still another of the kingdom's ridiculous laws is that you have to remove your hat to have your head cut off. Bartholomew, though willing, is clearly ineligible.
The Grand Duke's solution is to push Bartholomew off a parapet to his death. (Don't you love this guy?) The king doesn't have any better ideas. But on the way up the stairs...
Bartholomew's hats start improving. Instead of carbon copies of his farmboy hat, they become more and more beautiful, more and more elaborate, until the king wants for himself the 500th hat.
And that 500th hat, to the Grand Duke's disappointment, turns out to be the final hat that Bartholomew Cubbins has in him.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Examining the early work of any well-known author is fun. Here Seuss tells a much longer story than many of his fans are used to, with 56 pages as full of prose as of pictures. It's a darker story too, as Bartholomew faces death repeatedly, though without fear.
We get an early look at some familiar Seuss subjects and themes, like hats, and the idea that the elite are often up to no good and not deserving of the respect they demand. (Think Yertle the Turtle.)
And even though the book consists almost entirely of prose (the king's magicians speak in Seussian rhyme), the eagle-eared will spot plenty of sentences that suggest it was everything the good Dr. could do not to break out in verse!
JUST after SUNrise one SATurday MORning BarTHOLomew STARted for TOWN.
See? Accented syllable, followed by two unaccented syllables, again and again.
If the book has a weakness, it's that Bartholomew Cubbins isn't a particularly powerful protagonist, but rather a dutiful one. When the king orders him to the dungeon for beheading, Bartholomew simply goes. (Though he does keep grabbing hats off his head in hopes of bringing his ordeal to an end.) But that is probably Seuss's point: in the presence of a king, one doesn't have options. So let's hear it for democracy!
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins provides an early look at the master, unrestrained by the limitations of verse.
Bartholomew, you should know, reappears in Seuss's 1949 book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, also reviewed on this site.
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