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All work and no stilts put King Birtram's kingdom in danger
on November 26, 2004
Theodore Seuss Geisel, using his famous pen name of Dr. Seuss, wrote and illustrated his first children's book, "And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street," in 1937. Two years later he wrote "The King's Stilts." Even at this early point in his career Dr. Seuss was able to emphasize the idea that reading could be fun without have to be moralistic and that it was important that the illustrations actually had a close relationship with the text of the story. Geisel once declared: "I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities." Certainly "The King's Stilts" evidences that point.
The story begins with the point that King Birtram on the Kingdom of Binn NEVER wore his stilts during business hours and that he worked very hard, continuing to sign important papers of state even while he was taking a bath. However, the king's most important job was caring for the mighty Dike Trees that protected the people of Binn from the sea. Their heavy, knotted roots held back the water. However, those roots were also very tasty to Nizzards, a kind of giant blackbird with a sharp and pointed beak. If the Nizzards were to eat the roots of the Dike Trees then the roots would soon give way, the sea would pour in, and every last soul in the Kingdom of Binn would drown. But King Birtram did not allow this to happen and by gathering together a thousand of the largest and smartest cats in the world to function as Patrol Cats (wearing badges that say "P.C."). These cats were so important that the Cat Kitchen was bigger than that of the King and even had the best cooks in the land.
Every day from seven in the morning, when he watched the changing of the Cat Guard, to five in the afternoon, the King inspected every root of every Dike Tree in the kingdom. Only after that important task was finished each day would King Bitram hurry back to his castle to get his red stilts and start racing through his marble halls and garden stairs. The people thought it looked strange, but they knew the king worked hard and well as his job and if he wanted to have a bit of fun then he should be allowed to do whatever he wanted to do. Unfortunately Lord Droon was the one person in Binn who did not like fun and who sulked long enough that the decided to steal the King's stilts, which is when things start to go bad for both King Birtram and his people.
What makes this an interesting book is that, as is usually the case, Dr. Seuss is telling a story that imparts lessons to both young readers and older readers alike. If anything it is the latter that are the target audience for this story, since we see that being able to play is as important as hard work. As long as someone works long and hard they deserve to do what ever their heart desires when it comes to having fun. Meanwhile, younger readers would be getting the opposite lesson, learning that being able to have fun as an adult is dependent upon earning your enjoyment (which makes it clear that "The King's Stilts" is really more for adults).
I was actually surprised that "The King's Stilts" was written in 1939, because if I were trying to guess at what inspired Dr. Seuss to tell this particular story it would have been the concern in the press about President Dwight D. Eisenhower playing golf so often (I thought King Birtram looked a bit like Ike). But evidently Dr. Seuss was going for a more universal idea here. Meanwhile there is the entire subtext of how a kingdom might be lost because of a pair of stilts the same way as the old story about the battle lost for the want of a nail, which only serves to prove that with the good doctor there are always multiple levels to the story and its lessons.