Saturday, 1 August 2015

A fairy tale with a touch of reality: not sparing the rod, to make the Prince

Remember all those fairy tales we’d hear as children, with their courageous, handsome princes, who’d suffer a bit (perhaps living as a frog for a while) before everything worked out just fine?

It strikes me that adults ought to be able to cope with truer tales of princes and their changing fortunes. I happen to have one right here. I hope you enjoy it.

Once upon a time, there lived a Prince whose father never went to war, but was still called “the soldier King.” That was because he’d built a wonderful army that could have defeated the forces of any of his neighbours, had he ever used it. But he didn’t.

One day, the King told his son, “I want you to be a fine soldier too. You’re going to learn to be strong and courageous and lead other soldiers.”

So he gave him a good beating in front of the courtiers, because he’d let himself be thrown from a bolting horse, or had put on gloves on a cold day, or whatever.

Like so many fathers, the King also gave his son toys to play with. Toy soldiers. Only these were alive – children, like the Prince, a whole regiment for him to train.

Sadly, the Prince had certain behaviour traits that the King his father didn’t particularly like. He regarded them as “effeminate.” To help his son overcome such terrible drawbacks, he would beat him from time to time or point out what a girl he was, to the other courtiers.

When he was eighteen, and a proper soldier in the grown-up army, the Prince met another officer, nine years older, he could get really close to. They used to write poetry and play the flute together. In fact, they got so close that one day the Prince told him he couldn’t stand life at court any more and intended to run away to another country where his uncle was King. At first, his friend begged him not to, but when he realised that there was no way of talking him out of his plan, he went along with it.

Unfortunately, the plan was betrayed and the young men were arrested. As officers, they had to face courts martial. The court refused to judge the Prince, saying it didn’t have the authority, but it sentenced his friend to life imprisonment for desertion.

“Prison? Not good enough,” bellowed the King, “chop off his head.”

"Off with his head," cried the King
So they did, and the Prince had to watch until he fainted. When he emerged from three days of despair, the King put him in gaol for a few months, but decided he didn’t need to suffer severe punishment – perhaps I should say further severe punishment – so exiled him to a castle in a cold northern region. That suited the Prince, who collected a nice library, and lots of friends (all men). He started writing, poetry and philosophy, and made friends with the greatest poet of the time, who was also a philosopher.

He wrote a great book about how a ruler should be honest and virtuous, and not at all like the nasty Kings of the past. One can guess that they included his father.

Then his dad finally died, and the young Prince took the throne himself. It was a wonderful moment. At last, a philosopher would be King, and rule for the good of humanity, cultivating the arts and the sciences, and building a land of peace, plenty and pleasure.

Alas, it was not to be.

He wrote at once to his friend, the philosopher. 

“You know that book about how rulers should be virtuous? Could you please make sure it doesn’t get published after all?”

Sadly, it was too late to stop it appearing.

In the same letter, the Prince, who was now King, also mentioned that he was adding a few more battalions to his father’s wonderful and unused army. And then – he used it. When a woman came to the throne of the next door country, he decided that would lead to so much dissension that he could nip in and take one of her juiciest provinces. So he did.

But he kept the flute going and the poetry. And had fun with his friends (all men). His dad had made him marry, but he left his wife in the capital to run the official court (which she did rather well), while he went to a nice palace he’d built some miles away and enjoyed himself with his own court of like-minded friends.

The philosopher came too, but he was a rather important man himself and didn’t like dancing to the King’s tune. So in time he ran away, and was arrested by the King, just like the King had been arrested when he was a Prince. At least the philosopher wasn’t executed. After some uncomfortable weeks, he was allowed to leave.

The other friends discovered they could enjoy themselves splendidly, just as long as they enjoyed doing exactly what the King wanted. Though some of the time he wasn’t there, as he became highly effective at killing lots of his enemies, using the army built by his father the Soldier King, who never soldiered. The son proved rather good at soldiering, much to the annoyance of his neighbours.

A fine tale, isn’t it? And sadly rather more real than the ones we listened to as kids.

The Soldier King was Frederick William I of Prussia. His son was Frederick II, who after his first war decided he’d like to be called “the Great”, so of course he was. The decapitated officer was Hans Hermann von Katte. The uncle was George I of England. The deserted wife was Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern. She stayed in Berlin while Frederick lived in his palace of Sans Souci (“No worries”) in Potsdam. The philosopher and poet was Voltaire. Maria Theresa was the Empress of Austria who lost Silesia to Frederick.

History doesn’t record whether many of them lived happily ever after.

Fritz der Große playing the flute

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