Previous installments of Jaya Catches Up can be found here.
There’s a certain wispiness to stories that exist entirely as metaphors. You can sense when you begin that the people don’t feel round, and you could knock over the scenery with a slight push. Everything has been built to serve you, and you’ll never find the sensation of stumbling on an existing world that so many stories provide. This is not a bad thing: I listen to Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” on a pretty regular basis. It’s more like walking into the rainforest room at the zoo, and feeling piped-in steam curl your hair while all the plant life is on the other side of the glass.
I thought The Whipping Boy’s plot could be seen from a mile away, since they set everything up pretty quickly in the beginning–Prince Brat cannot be legally harmed, so every time he misbehaves his Whipping Boy gets beaten up. Since Prince Brat lives up to his name, he never cares what happens to the Whipping Boy, Jemmy, and never learns his lessons. (This is figuratively and literally; Prince Brat never bothers to learn how to read or write). However, Prince Brat gets bored, and one night grabs Jemmy and says they’re escaping.
Here’s what I thought would go down: Prince Brat and Jemmy would get into some trouble, and Jemmy would get them out of it. Prince Brat would see, through Jemmy and his interactions with his old friends who all fight rats for a living, that he has it very good, and that he should care for the people of his kingdom who are not as lucky. He would then return to the castle and set Jemmy free and take some responsibility for himself. That sounds like a nice little fable, right? The book is about 80 pages long so that’s really all we have time for anyway.
It’s close, but the metaphor takes a turn. Prince Brat and Jemmy are indeed captured by two known criminals, one of whom eats raw garlic, and Jemmy convinces them that he is the Prince and the Prince is the Whipping Boy. He instructs them to write a ransom note to the King, promising them wagonfuls of gold, so that the Prince may return to the castle as a messenger. But the Prince is slow on the uptake, and even when he figures it out, he has no interesting in following through with the plan.
Why’s that? Because he’s bored! It’s lonely in the castle! He’s not allowed to do anything so he has no excitement in his life! He just wants to be a kid! Okay, so not to get all Occupy Wall Street on anyone, but I am so tired of this trope. It’s true that everyone has their issues and their demons, and in order to be a more empathetic society we need to stop making assumptions about other peoples struggles and listen to their stories. But I also think that an actual fucking Prince is maybe the last person on the storytelling list.
The book is told from Jemmy’s perspective, and because of that, the main emotional arc we see is Jemmy coming to understand the plight of Prince Brat. Throughout the book Jemmy finds himself in situations where he could escape, only to stay back and take care of the Prince, who he realizes is helpless. Jemmy leads them through the forest and the sewers, away from their captors, and hatches plan after plan to keep them safe. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have sympathy for this Prince who obviously can’t fend for himself and would wind up being killed if left alone in the woods. I’m just saying that if he were to leave this Prince alone in the woods to die it would be pretty understandable.
In the meantime, the Prince also begins insisting on calling Jemmy his friend. We can only assume this is because the Prince is starting to fucking get it for once in his dumb life, but since he never narrates we just have to assume so. Eventually they stumble through the woods and wind up at a fair, where they eat hot potatoes and overhear some people talking about how the prince is missing, and how horrible it’ll be when he’s king because he’s such a dick. Prince Brat is understandably hurt when Jemmy confirms that this is indeed what most people think of him. After one more scuffle with the criminals, Prince Brat decides it’s time to return to the palace, giving the reward for finding him to the hot potato guy at the fair. Seemingly, he learns, and Jemmy gets to live in the castle as his friend, not a Whipping Boy.
The thing that I love about fables, which is really how this story is structured, is the absolute sense of morality. The downtrodden win and the bad people get what’s coming to them, and often in ways that are terrifying and absurd and immensely satisfying. I want the assholes to beg for forgiveness, and never have it granted. I want them to live their lives knowing exactly the path they carved to get them here, to whatever hellish place they have to endure for eternity, and blame only themselves. I want there to be no such thing as redemption, only regret. I want all of you to know you should maybe not be friends with me because if I didn’t keep myself in check this is exactly how I’d conduct myself in real life.
Maybe the Whipping Boy is more realistic. The Prince can have his feelings hurt and learn a lesson and still be a Prince, and Jemmy can live a nice life in the castle with a new friend. Life will get a little better for some people, but mostly go along as planned, and I guess as a child this is also an important lesson to learn, that adventures don’t change the world, they just change you a little bit, sometimes. Welcome to the world.