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The King’s Equal (Katherine Paterson)
August 20, 2009, 21:20
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA

The King’s Equal
(New York, Harper Collins, 1992, 64 pp., hardback, $24.50)

At first, ‘The King’s Equal’ seems like just another fairy tale adaptation from some classic about a prince who must fulfill his good father’s dying wish before he can ascend to the throne. We’ve heard it before. Some quest, beautiful maiden, father’s blessing, lovely and prosperous kingdom.

But instead of a fantastic quest, Paterson’s King asks this of his son:

‘…You will not wear my crown until the day you marry a woman who is your equal in beauty and intelligence and wealth.’

If Prince Raphael had been a humbler man, he might have found this request relieving. But he is angry, and calls it a

‘…curse! Where shall I find a princess who is equal to me in every way?’

He puts the request out of his mind and proceeds to ruin the kingdom and its subjects for his own personal gain. However, he may not have the crown until he finds the ‘King’s Equal.’ Yet to his frustration, he cannot find a wife who satisfies him in every way, and bodies of officials and women alike pile up in jail because of it. One day, a beautiful stranger named Rosamond appears. She strikes the prince with her beauty, intelligence, and wealth. She quoth:

‘Perhaps you are poorer than I, for there is nothing I desire that I do not already possess.’

Rosamond is actually the daughter of a poor mountain woodsman, who has been aided and encouraged through the kindness of a safe and magical Wolf. Even though Raphael accepts her as his ‘equal,’ she declares that he may not marry her unless he spends a year in that same cottage where she resided, in the company of three goats and the Wolf. He spends the year working and is slowly humbled, to the point where he begins to think himself quite unworthy of Rosamond, but returns within the year as promised. But now he walks away, dejected, but she calls him back, smiling. She takes his hand, and needless to say, they wed, and the kingdom is restored.

KP’s points of departure in this story are so important! They are what make the story special! First, the King does not ask for a show of glory, but a show of humility. In order to be raised up to the heights, he must descend. He does this socially, as a goatherder, and very much in terms of his view of himself, from pride to disgust at his shameful character. But the process of hard work, and seeing himself truly, puts him through finally makes him fit to be a King. So the story is titled the King’s Equal in a double sense – Rosamund as a ‘king’s’ literal equal, and Raphael, finally worthy to call himself the equal of an ideal King. Rosamund is far from vapid and Raphael far, far from glorious.

Katherine Paterson is one of those storytellers who makes me marvel and how she can create a character in so few words and sentences, and still make them intensely personal. She takes a story and makes it unavoidable, she has a special touch of resolving a story so that there’s that feeling in your chest that everything is satisfying and deep and right… do you know what I mean?

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