Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication - John Steinbeck

The Short Reign of Pippin IV is one of the few Steinbeck titles I don't own and had never read. It's not his greatest work, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be looking for a copy to add to my collection. The setting and subject matter stray far from the Steinbeck classics with which most people are familiar, but his detailed character studies and analysis of the human condition are just as spot on.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication is the story of an average, middle class man with few aspirations and simple dreams who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight and seat of power when France's arguing political parties suddenly decide to reinstate the monarchy. Of course the political parties desire a pawn rather than a ruler and each has a different design on how a king will play into their party's favor. Pippin, who is chosen for the crown because he is a descendant of Charles Martel, does not wish to be king. His desire is to continue living his simple middle class life in peace, and his only ambition is to be allowed to gaze at the stars from his rooftop each night and perhaps one day be elected into the Academy for his celestial discoveries. His response to being forced to take the throne is one of shock and confusion.
Pippin was in a state of shock for a long time. He said to himself in wonder and in fear, "I am king and I don't even know what a king is." He read the stories of his ancestors. "But they wanted to be kings," he told himself. "At least most of them did. And some of them wanted to be more. There I have it. If I could only find some sense of mission, of divinity of purpose."
p. 73
Though he did not desire the position, Pippin feels a responsibility to carry out the duties of his office, just as soon as he can figure out what they are. At first he is met by an insistence on tradition and ridiculous excess. This is not the simple life he prefers and he sees that it is not in the best interest of his beloved France. Pippin sees through the scheming of the nobles and political parties to their true intentions and wants no part of it. Instead he seeks that sense of mission and divinity of purpose which will best serve his nation and his people, if only he can get past the nobles and politicians and palace guard to search out the needs of the common citizens of France.

It would seem that Steinbeck made an unusual choice in setting his novel in post WWII France, but I think it was a stroke of genius. By setting the story all the way overseas and reinstating a form of government which this country has never known since its independence from England, Steinbeck perhaps had more freedom to explore corruption and dysfunction in our own political system. I doubt he was in danger of angering the French by setting the plot on their soil. Just to be sure, the title makes clear that this story is a fabrication, practically a fairy tale. Surely the French were also able to see through this misdirection to the overstretching truths presented, that they could easily apply to any government, and most likely were a reflection of the author's own. The astute reader will doubtless recognize the failings of his own government no matter where he lives because those faults, as well as the basic needs of common citizens, are universal.

Truth is sometimes easier to grasp, as well as more palatable, when wrapped in a good story. We can see the vain motivations, evil intentions, and ridiculous failures of the story's characters and laugh or smile because at first it is only a story. Truth settles in more slowly as we see that what we took for mild amusement and entertainment is really a parable. And it is about us as much as any fictional monarchy in a foreign land.

For anyone seeking a good story as well as light-hearted commentary on societies and governments, I highly recommend The Short Reign of Pippin IV

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to read anything by Steinbeck. Will have to rectify that soon. Pippin IV sounds interesting. Will have to check it out. Thanks.

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