The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved

by John Ciardi
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Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

The effect of the poet’s tongue-in-cheek approach in The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved is to keep readers distant from the fiction and to suggest that one not take the tale seriously. In addition, the characters are, except for the king, scarcely more than names. The knight, who...

(The entire section contains 568 words.)

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The effect of the poet’s tongue-in-cheek approach in The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved is to keep readers distant from the fiction and to suggest that one not take the tale seriously. In addition, the characters are, except for the king, scarcely more than names. The knight, who is given the obvious, generic name of Hero, is never seen without his helmet. He remains a faceless force with one outstanding trait: an unwavering zeal that blinds the believer. Yet, the simplicity of the plot, its charming commentary, and, above all, its compelling logic—it is silly to start a fight in this peaceful world—engage one’s attention and sympathy. Readers may be disarmed by the tone and manner of the poem’s narrator, a congenial voice that continually assures that all this playfulness is mere artless fabrication. This staged innocence befits the characters in the story itself. The giant wants only to smell the flowers in the park, the princess passes her time in the tower watching the larks, and the queen lies in bed with a cold while the king snoozes on the throne. Once aroused by the intrusive knight, however, the king proves to be a practical sort who thinks the clamorous Hero is not only a nuisance but a fool so determined to do the heroic deed that he cannot see that the kingdom is in no need of saving. He is so caught up in his enthusiasm that he ignores the cannon’s fuse as it rapidly burns toward the powder. Children will delight in the silliness; adults will see in it a commentary on the world outside the child’s fiction.

By making fun of itself, by adding larks and castles by the sea because such “of course” poems as this fairy tale always have them, the poem forestalls any criticism that would see the piece as a mere child’s poem. On one level, the poet is having a lark, but the stock characters and phrases are transparent enough to show a serious undertone. The more childlike and harmless this simple world appears, the more awful and frightening is the knight who comes with a fierce determination to save it.

The main focus of the narrative is on the problem presented by the errant knight. Implicit in the portrait is the knight’s blindness, his inability to accept “reality,” so dedicated is he to the chivalric code. The main message is unstated but nevertheless clear: Something is wrong with a belief that blinds one to reality. By making this kingdom not only peaceful but childlike in its innocence, the poem goes further and makes the chivalric code, represented by the knight, a force that threatens to destroy the kingdom. The traditional view of the Camelot ideal is turned topsy-turvy. Here, the knight is not a righter of wrong, a slayer of evil dragons and giants, for none exists. The knight himself is the monster, monstrous in his dedication to an ideal that, if it is not entirely outmoded, is out of place in this kingdom. There are places, the poem is saying, that do not need heroes. A more serious implication, however, hovers over the whole halcyon scene: Sometimes heroes do more harm than good. Sometimes they cause problems where none exists, as the king declares: “once they start saving you . . . / They don’t know when to stop.”

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