Dr. Seuss's The King's Stilts
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
The Kingdom of Binn exists in a state of precarious ecological balance.
It is an island, but one that lies below sea level. How is that possible? Well, it's surrounded on all sides by Dike Trees. (Think Super Mangroves.)
The very survival, therefore, of the citizens of Binn depends on the continuing health of all the Dike Trees. And Dike Trees, you should know have a natural predator, the Nizzards. (A bird.) Nizzards like the taste of Dike Tree roots.
Therefore it's essential that the kingdom employs an efficient team (1000 strong!) of Patrol Cats, whose job it is to keep Nizzards from nibbling.
Maintaining the kingdom thus requires due diligence, so it's a good thing that good King Birtram is in charge. In addition to all the standard duties of a king, he's in charge of keeping the Patrol Cats well-fed, disciplined, and celebrated.
The king lives a life of balance as well. Yes, he works very hard from the moment he wakes. But at 5 o'clock every afternoon he calls an end to his workday and does something very unkingly.
He walks on stilts.
He loves it! He lives for it. The king's life balance requires balance balance.
The townsfolk love him for it. His loyal page boy, Eric, loves to watch.
But Lord Droon, the kingdom's top bureaucrat, thinks it's undignified and inappropriate. And so he has the king's stilts buried.
The King's Stilts
When the king's play suffers, the king's work suffers, and he was the one who kept the kingdom running. Without him disciplining the Patrol Cats and rewarding them for their hard work, they become lazy. The Nizzards move in and start pecking at the Dike Tree roots.
The entire kingdom is threatened, because all work and no play makes King Birtram depressed.
Only young Eric knows what Lord Droon has done, and so Droon locks him away. It's up to Eric to escape, retrieve the stilts and reach the king. The king has to be made happy again or Binn will be washed away.
There is so much to be noted here in this nearly forgotten 1939 publication that I hardly know where to start.
Firstly, the book is written in prose. Yet note how many of the places and characters have typical Seuss nonsense names, seemingly built for rhyme:
And of course Cats. (I think we can all agree that Dr. Seuss knew how to rhyme with Cat!)
I have to believe that there was an early draft of this piece that rhymed. If only someone could find it!
And what about those Nizzards? Sounds a little like Nazi, doesn't it? Remember, Seuss published The King's Stilts in 1939, shortly before America's entry into World War II and well after the rise of Nazism in Germany. Is there a statement Seuss was trying to make?
(Seuss wrote and drew a lot on the subject of Nazi Germany and our confronting it.)
Clearly the book has an ecological angle as well. The Kingdom of Binn probably wouldn't exist if not for human (and cat) intervention.
But surely, the main theme here is about living a life in balance, about having a proper mix of work and play, of discipline and abandon. We can be sure that balance was at the heart of Seuss's message because he put the king on stilts and not a tennis court.
The King's Stilts may be forgotten Seuss, but we'd do best to remember its message.
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