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Literature / The Prince and the Pauper

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Left: Edward VI of England. Right: Tom Canty. Or, uh, maybe vice versa?

The Prince and the Pauper is an 1882 Mark Twain Historical Fiction novel about a Street Urchin named Tom Canty and Prince Edward VI of England, son of King Henry VIII, switching places.

In the year 1547, Tom has always dreamed of a better life, and Edward is fascinated by Tom's lifestyle. When they exchange clothes just for fun, they accidentally end up mistaken for each other, and the boys become forced into each other's everyday situation. Tom has matters of national importance to attend to and has a hard time adjusting to court life, and Prince Edward finds out just how hard an urchin's life is.

The book has been adapted to film many times:

  • A 1937 black and white film adaptation starred twin brothers Billy and Bobby Mauch with Errol Flynn as Miles Hendon and Claude Rains as the villainous Earl of Hartford.
  • A 1962 TV film broadcast on "The Magical World of Disney" with Guy Williams as Miles Hendon.
  • A 1977 British version, renamed Crossed Swords in the United States, starred Mark Lester in a dual role with Oliver Reed as Miles Hendon and Charlton Heston as Henry VIII.
  • A 1990 animated cartoon short of the same name stars Mickey Mouse as both the prince and the pauper, but one of them is captured by the captain of the guards, Pete, along with Donald Duck (just before Goofy rescues them).
  • An Israeli 1996 stage musical, with Oded Menashe playing Miles Hendon. A VHS tape was released, and the video is available on YouTube as of 2023.
  • A very faithful 6-episode BBC series was produced in 1996 by Julian Fellowes, starring Philip Sarson in both title roles, James Purefoy as Miles Hendon, Sophia Myles as Lady Jane Grey and Keith Michell reprising his previous role as Henry VIII.
  • A 2004 animated movie version had Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (the 2004 Lionsgate DVD release is long out of print but the 2010 Universal DVD re-issue is still available).
  • A 2007 updated live-action version stars twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse (TV's The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) alongside Kay Panabaker (Fame) as their ultra cute versions of Tom Canty and Prince Edward. A most recent version had Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell who accidentally switch places with Garrett Clayton and Grace Phipps, hence the official name of Teen Beach Movie, shown on the Disney Channel, as a beach-side adaption of the classic story.

It is the Trope Namer for Prince and Pauper, and arguably the story is Lost in Imitation.

Tropes used by the novel:

  • Abusive Parents: John Canty is a drunkard and brute who terrorizes his wife, son and daughters. Tom's grandmother is just as bad, often encouraging Tom's father to do it.
  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: Tom Canty suffers a bit of this as a result of becoming king. Then again, who can blame him? Though he realizes he's gone too far when he denies his own mother.
  • Agony of the Feet: Edward’s first day barefoot on the streets of London ends in blood. He adjusts pretty well after that, though.
  • Author Tract: Living in an age when the legal system was under the domination of the new rich, Twain dropped a few anvils about the dangers of a legal system written strictly to benefit the upper class. This is why the film incarnations are so much shorter than the book, because the adaptations cut out a great number of instances of brutal Tudor "justice" that the Prince encounters in his travels: the original book sends a powerful message about the insanity of a judicial system constructed entirely for the benefit of the wealthy.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Tom has no shoes, but his feet have long since hardened on the streets of London. Edward, in his place, soon finds his soft feet bleeding.
  • Cain and Abel: Hugh tries to usurp Miles' inheritance by manipulating their father into sending Miles off to war. In spite of this, Miles had Easily Forgiven Hugh and is happy to see him again, until Hugh refuses to acknowledge his brother and later has him whipped For the Evulz.
  • Cassandra Truth: Both Tom and Edward realize they've made a huge mistake after just a short time of living each other's life, but no one believes them, thinking them to be either insane or under a huge amount of stress.
  • Character Tics: When startled, Tom Canty quickly lifts one hand over his eyes. This is how his mother identifies her son later on.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Miles Hendon falls in with the Prince and devotes himself to helping the 'poor mad boy'. Played with, obviously, because The Cloud Cuckoo Lander Was Right.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: The epilogue mentions Edward VI's death at the age of fifteen, as per history. Oh, and cute little Jane Grey was decapitated shortly afterward. And a century later, Miles Hendon's last direct descendant dies in the English Civil War.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The book is laden with examples of Tudor "justice" - the horror stories that the Prince hears and the other punishments that he witnesses do much to turn him from a nice but clueless Ivory Tower dweller into a determined agent for reform and mercy once he returns to his throne. Even Tom Canty uses his borrowed power to undo a few bits of legal barbarism.
  • Doppelgänger: Seriously, how is it that two kids are exactly alike?
  • Double Standard: Faced with a nine-year-old girl accused of witchcraft, Tom is indignant when told that a child can sell her soul to the Devil when a contract between a child and a human adult would be invalid.
  • Emergency Impersonation: Tom has to pose as the prince. The prince's father, Henry VIII, thinks he's actually the Prince suffering from Laser-Guided Amnesia and commands him to 'behave normally', and Tom Canty wouldn't dream of disobeying his monarch.
  • Fish out of Water: Both Tom and Edward, for different reasons. The former sees what the upper class is truly like, and the latter sees how horrible the underclasses have it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Because the real Edward VI is one of the main characters, the reader knows from the outset that he'll inevitably return to being a prince in the end and die at a young age after becoming king.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Tom and Edward's dreams of living each others' lives for a short time. They get the opportunity, albeit seeing that each other's side of the fence has its own drawbacks.
  • Grass Is Greener: Played entirely straight with regard to the Prince, who thinks Tom Canty's life sounds like fun until he has to live it. Zigzagged a bit in Tom's case; at first he's miserable and frightened, but he gradually gets used to his new life and dreads having to become a pauper again, until seeing his mother snaps him out of it and he begs to have his old life back.
  • Gratuitous Latin: Miles pulls something similar on the prison guard to help Edward escape from a wrongful prison sentence. (The guard had blackmailed a woman into selling him a pig valued at three shillings and eightpence for just eightpence, because she had reduced the value under oath in the courtroom to avoid having Edward hang.)
    Miles: In the law this crime is called Non compos mentis lex talionis sic transit gloria mundi. ... And the penalty is death! ... By advantage taken of one in fault, in dire peril, and at thy mercy, thou hast seized goods worth above thirteenpence ha'penny, paying but a trifle for the same; and this, in the eye of the law, is constructive barratry, misprision of treason, malfeasance in office, ad hominem expurgatis in statu quo — and the penalty is death by the halter, without ransom, commutation, or benefit of clergy.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The text uses 'ejaculated' (in the sense of 'exclaimed') and 'orgies' (in the sense of 'drunken debauchery') often.
  • Hidden Purpose Test: Tom conducts one using Reverse Psychology to prove an alleged witch and her daughter innocent. Not that he thought it through: he just thought seeing a genuine witch cast a spell would be neat.
  • Historical Domain Character: Edward, Henry, Elizabeth, Mary, Jane... There's a lot. The text even notes the real Edward VI died at the age of fifteen.
  • Identical Stranger: Tom Canty looks exactly like Prince Edward. Perhaps not the Ur-Example, but assuredly the Trope Maker.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Miles Hendon and Edward.
  • Karmic Jackpot: For saving the Prince from an angry mob and a whipping, Miles Hendon is granted a knighthood, the unique privilege of sitting in the presence of royalty, and the rank of Earl. And with this, he's finally able to return home and marry the woman he loves.
  • King Incognito: Edward ends up in the role of a street urchin, assuming it will be entertaining. Reality proceeds to assure him that it's not fun at all.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Miles, the second of three sons, was banished by his father and sent to the army because of Hugh, who is the youngest and Parental Favourite.
  • Mock Millionaire: Tom really isn't quite sure what to do with all of his newfound money and power. It won't stop him from enjoying it.
  • Mutual Envy: This is why the prince and the pauper decide to switch places in Mark Twain's novel and its retellings.
  • Old Retainer: Blake Andrews, a lifelong servant of Hendon Hall, reunites with Miles while the latter is imprisoned and secretly smuggles in food and news from outside.
  • Prince and Pauper: Trope Namer. A beggar and a prince swap places for a day, thinking the other's life must be grand. They quickly find out they really shouldn't have swapped places; the beggar realizes the intense political pressure that a king is under, and the king sees the injustices and hardships that common people have to go through.
  • Princess for a Day: Actually for a period of a few months. Tom becomes king in Edward's place, though he's way out of his depth.
  • Rags to Riches: Tom goes from a street urchin begging for coins to the king of England thanks to a misunderstanding. At the end of the story, he also ends up as the King's Ward, so he'll never be poor again.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Edward, and Tom in his place. This trope also guides Edward's character development, from a well-meaning yet ignorant prince to a just and noble king.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: As seen under Gratuitous Latin above, Miles also makes use of this to intimidate a guard into letting Edward escape his wrongful prison sentence, stating that the guard's actions are constructive barratry, misprision of treason, and malfeasance in office. Miles was likely counting on the guard not knowing what these mean; that said, he hit the nail on the head with malfeasance in office - the guard committed a crime (in this case, blackmail) in the course of his official duties, and it definitely affected those duties. The other two don't apply in this case - barratry is when you bring lawsuits to harass someone or for profit, and misprision of treason is knowing about someone plotting or committing treason and not reporting it.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Edward doesn't really know how much people in his country are struggling, and really do much on his own. It's only when he sees it all firsthand that the troubles of the lower classes are drilled into his head.
  • Shown Their Work: As he did with his Joan of Arc novel, Twain used all the historical documentation he could find. The text is heavily footnoted, including the atrocities Edward witnesses in the prison-yard. He doesn't provide a translation for the now-unintelligible song sung by the beggars in chapter 17; it's about a woman whose clothes were stolen, the thief caught and hung. Twain got it from Francis Kirkman's The English Rogue; the translation's in a later book, Musa Pedestris.
  • Sibling Triangle: Miles and Hugh both want to marry their cousin Edith. Subverted with Hugh who only wants her money and title. Averted with their older brother Arthur, who was originally her betrothed but broke it off.
  • Street Urchin: Tom, who lives in a house among many other mouths to feed, has clothes that are always dirty, and has to beg for coin to survive.
  • Swapped Roles: One of the oldest and most famous examples, where a street urchin and a king swap places out of misguided desires to see how the other side lives.
  • Twin Switch: The two lookalikes temporarily switch places to see what each other's life is like.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Despite the Prince and Pauper trope being used in future works, both the "Prince" and the "Pauper" in this trope-naming story try to tell the truth about what they've done very early on, but no one believes them. The two also only intended to swap clothes and nothing else, but circumstances lead them to being forced into switching places for a while. The story also shows them character development for both the prince and the pauper, learning to appreciate what they have while seeing how the other side doesn't have it as good as they believed.
  • Un-person: Hugh tries to make his brother Miles into this. Conveniently, all of their immediate family have died during Miles' time away from home, and Hugh threatens the rest of the household into keeping silent.
  • Wisdom from the Gutter: Played with. When Tom is forced to portray himself as Edward for a while, he hears a lot of cases of prisoners who are brought before him, including several people accused of witchcraft. Tom's street smarts and world-weary attitude have him free most of the prisoners by either pointing out the blatant Double Standards on display, or by Pulling the Thread of evidence against the accused by showing how much of it can't hold up to scrutiny. For instance, Tom acquits a peasant woman accused of raising a storm through witchcraft by telling her to conjure another storm in the throne room. When she inevitably can't, Tom lets her go; he notes that if it meant saving her child from a motherless life, he's sure the woman would do it.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Both Edward and Tom are awfully intelligent young men, the former being well-educated and the latter having good street smarts and empathy.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Edward tries to free Miles from his (unjust) punishment in the pillory and is nearly whipped by the guards and Hugh, before Miles pleads to take the lashings himself.

Tropes found in the 1937 film:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Tom using the Great Seal for a nutcracker got everyone, including the Archduke, laughing after a moment. (This is in the book, and was considered the final proof for anyone who doubted that Tom wasn't the real king.)
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: After the prince is born, Henry cruelly tells Jane Seymour she no longer has any reason to exist. Say what you will of Henry VIII, it's known that he absolutely adored his third wife.
  • Match Cut: Between the Prince of Wales newborn in his bed, and the newborn pauper boy in his.

Tropes found in the 1996 TV series:

  • Nice Mean And In Between: Edward has two older sisters and a female cousin, all future Queens of England, and the series' portrayal of the three of them follows this trope to a T. Elizabeth (nice) is a good-natured young woman who adores her brother and shows more willingness than the others to listen to and support him (and Tom Canty in his place). Mary (mean) comes across as scheming and sinister, has subtle designs on the throne herself, and fully condones the harsh miscarriages of justice that take place during the story. Jane Grey (in-between) seems generally well-intentioned, but not quite as compassionate as Elizabeth, and sometimes easily swayed by the harsh judgments and words of the less honourable characters.