I just found out today is the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. In honor of this, I’m going to share one of my favorite children’s books with you. I love it so much, I found an old copy on Amazon and bought it. (I even bought it before today. That’s how awesome it is.) Luckily, I have a picture I can show you, which I’m 85% sure doesn’t violate any copyright laws.
How many friends do you have?
The King With Six Friends
The book is called The King With Six Friends, in case you couldn’t tell from the picture. It is the delightful tale of King Zar, who lost his kingdom. Sadly, as a king he is unfit to do anything but rule, so he goes off in search of a new kingdom. Along the way he comes across six unusual shapeshifting specters. (Really they’re people, but come on, the one guy can turn himself into a fire.) He saves each of these “people” from some terrible conundrum, like shoeing a mouse away from the elephant wizard. In gratitude for his bravery and ingenuity, each man offers to follow him.
After searching around with his buddies, Zar finds a few nice kingdoms (they’re kind of just laying around), but they all have kings. Eventually, he stumbles into the kingdom ruled by Invictus, a friend of his father’s, where he learns the king is having trouble marrying off his daughter. His first reaction, “Is she so ugly?” (Nice, Zar. We can tell you’re quite the catch.) He finds out she is actually very beautiful (score!), but her father is very proud and will only marry her to a king. The only problem is, every other king around is already married (polygamy anyone?). “Huzzah!” Zar cries (not really, but he should have), he is in luck. If there’s one thing he’s good for besides being a king, as he tells Invictus, it’s marrying hot princesses. Oh, but Invictus isn’t satisfied yet. You see, his daughter is very rich, and Zar doesn’t have jack squat! Not to be deterred when his eye’s on the prize Zar just says, “When I marry her, I will be rich, too.” He does have impeccable logic. So, the king agrees to let Zar marry his daughter if he can pass a few tests. Zar is no fool though, he demands to see
his reward, I mean the princess before agreeing to any trials. After satisfying himself with her beauty (I assume he checked her teeth or something), Zar agrees to the trials, but only if his friends are allowed to help him. Invictus agrees, with the stipulation that if they fail, they will all lose their heads.
Zar and friends must pass six trials (hmmm, nothing convenient about that number.) As luck would have it, each of the trials seem uniquely formulated to be beaten through the use of a very specific kind of witchcraft which one of Zar’s companions just happens to be an expert in. After using his friends to win him the princess’ hand in marriage, there is a wedding and a great feast. At the feast the king’s steward asks one of Zar’s companions, “Each of you six had something he could do best. It seems to me that it was you who passed the tests, not Zar. What did he do?” The companion replies, with a twinkle in his eye, “Merry Christmas to all! Now you’re all gonna die!” Err. Sorry. I’ve had a Weird Al song stuck in my head for a couple days. He actually says, “He did what only a good king can do. He led us.”
What Can We Learn From This?
Well, as you may have guessed, the book is kind of misogynistic, a fact I completely missed as a child. There are only two female characters, one of whom is a barmaid and the other of whom is the princess who says nothing, just stands there and looks pretty. The princess is valued only because of her beauty and wealth. King Invictus and Zar bargain for her as they would a prize cow, and indeed she is treated much the same. I’m willing to give these things more of a pass because the book was written in the ’60s by a man who was already a grandfather. That doesn’t make it right in any way, but what it does mean for me is that the book probably isn’t intentionally misogynistic. That counts for something, I think.
Now, at the beginning of the post I referred to this book as one of my favorites, and it definitely is, despite all the problems with it. One thing I love about this book are the pictures, which are detailed but still childish in the best way possible. The story, despite being fairly archetypal, is creative and imaginative, and the illustrations bring that out beautifully. Another great thing is it has actual paragraphs, as opposed to many great children’s books which have one or one half of a sentence per page. While still an easy read for an adult, this provides a great (as in good, not huge) challenge for children who may not be used to lengthier texts.
Lastly, dealing with the content, the book is not about misogyny, which is why I can give it a little bit of a pass. It is really about leadership and the value of good friends. It brings these lessons across very well, and to that I say ‘Bravo!’ I think the book is valuable enough for these qualities to still be read to children. If I ever have children, I will read this book to them. Then, I’ll talk with them about the lessons they should get from this book and the lessons they shouldn’t get. Who knows, maybe I’ll make up a few extra bits to add in about how the princess set the trials herself because she knows her value, and how she had a long talk with Zar about why beauty isn’t the best measure of a potential spouse. Maybe he’ll just win the chance to date her, and after a long courtship they’ll break it off because they’re just not really compatible as a couple. Maybe if I have daughters, Zar will be a queen and she’ll marry the rich, dullard, handsome prince and she’ll rule the land. In the end though, The King With Six Friends really is a wonderful story for children. Just take it with a grain of salt.