The text of the poem was first published in The Saturday Review of November 14, 1964; the book edition has a twelve-line rhymed dedication to James Cubeta. This work showcases John Ciardi’s talent for appealing to both adults and children and is a testament to his popularity. He wrote several children’s books, including I Met a Man (1961) and The Wish-Tree (1962). His adult readers would know him not only as a poet of considerable reputation but as a teacher, editor, and critic as well. His work is never far from either the serious or the witty and playful, as The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved demonstrates.
The poet’s intent in composing this tale may not have been to awaken children to the danger of believing too much in romantic ideals, but this message is inescapable, certainly to the adult reader. Appearing at a time when the concept of Camelot was perhaps at its crest, a year after the assassination of its chief inspiration, President John F. Kennedy, this poem offers a sobering comment on the tendency toward idolatry to which human nature is often is heir. Ciardi denied that his poem carries such a message, but the poem itself belies the author. Its point of reference is both historical and conventional, and since it mocks the world and ideals that it depicts, the implication is obvious: One should not take heroes or myths too seriously. The setting of the poem, as unadorned as a cartoon; its witty wordplay; and its few characters, who scarcely act, highlight in their simplicity the poem’s central point—that ideals can carry one too far into make-believe. The adult reader who is familiar with Ciardi’s poetry would recognize his penchant for satire and for calling attention to the fact that in the real world all things pass, including a society’s most cherished ideals. Children will delight in the poem’s amusing wit, as will adults, who will also feel its sharp point pressed against their tendency to follow heroes into oblivion.