Throughout the novel I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill, we are constantly aware of the misery felt by twelve-year-old Charles Kingshaw. This, and the way it is shown, is very important in really understanding his character, and what eventually leads him to his own death.
Charles Kingshaw has a series of irrational fears. Although this is normal for most children, his fears are so crippling that they go far beyond the typical childish nightmare. An example of one of these fears is swimming pools. Early on in the book, Kingshaw recalls being taken to an open-air swimming pool by his father as a much younger child. He remembers how he had feared the water, not only because he couldn’t swim, but also because of its “glassy, artificial blueness” and how “people’s limbs looked huge and pale and swollen underneath.”
He also fears the “terrible” moths in the Red Room at Warings, and is afraid of touching their “furry bodies”. Another fear he has is of crows. Even before he is attacked by the crow in the cornfield outside Warings, Kingshaw notes that it has “ragged black wings” and “small, glinting eyes”. He has to tell himself that it is “stupid to be scared of a rotten bird”. Later on, when Hooper puts the stuffed crow on his bed, he is “faint with fear” and wishes for his own death – even though he knows immediately that it is not real.
This is just one example of the way Hooper exploits Kingshaw’s fears during the novel. When he brings Kingshaw to the Red Room to show him the moths, it seems he just wants to show off. But he immediately recognises that Kingshaw is afraid when, upon seeing the moths, when he “sharply” draws his breath. Hooper mocks him and orders him to touch one, and Kingshaw’s instinct is to fight as hard as he can – anything to avoid having to feel them. Hooper watches him and sees this, and runs out of the room, locking the door behind him. Later on, Hooper locks Kingshaw in the dark shed, leaving him to fantasize about murderers lurking in the shadows.
Kingshaw thinks of Hooper as “clever” and “cunning” and thinks he will never be able to escape his endless persecution. He is “unbalanced” by the open hostility Hooper treats him with, and doesn’t know how to beat him. However, it would be possible for Kingshaw to beat Hooper. Physically, he is taller and is strong enough to give Hooper a bruise when they have their only fistfight, on their very first meeting, and bites him hard enough to make him withdraw when Hooper tries to intimidate Kingshaw on the stairs. Kingshaw would also have the capacity to beat Hooper in his mind games, if he only knew it; Hooper finds Kingshaw “frustrating”, and is “at a loss” to get past his “dull, steady stare”. His insults are very childish (“stupid head”; “scaredy-baby”), and Kingshaw even recognises that Hooper is “not very used to being a bully”. Yet Kingshaw is too and fatalistic, to see his own potential.
Kingshaw’s fatalism is important in understanding his misery. His description of himself is very telling of his outlook on life:
“He had no good opinion of his own chances, against Hooper. Or against anyone. He was not cowardly. Just realistic, hopeless. He did not give into people, just went, from the beginning, with the assurance that he would be beaten. It meant that there was no surprise, and no disappointment, about anything”.
At many points in the novel, Kingshaw has moments of genuine happiness, in which he feels untouchable and in control. This is reflected in the title of the book itself, and in a later chapter in the book in which he actually climbs to the top of an ancient ruin of a castle. However, this euphoria never lasts, and he falls from his “castle” every time- all because of his own refusal to fight against what he feels is inevitability; Hooper will always beat him, he will never win.
We see these moments of happiness and his sudden snap back to reality multiple times: when he discovers his secret room in Warings and Hooper finds it, so he decided to just let him in; when he ventures on his own into the woods and Hooper follows him; when he climbs up onto the tractor in the cornfield, feeling on top of the world, and gets stuck when dismounting it so he fears it will roll back an crush him. In the chapter in which he fearlessly climbs the castle whilst Hooper begs for help on a wall below him, Kingshaw feels that surge of power again: “I am the King…I could kill him.” But Kingshaw knows that he will not, knowing that “any power he acquired would only be temporary”. So he tries to help Hooper, and we, as readers, feel frustrated with his helplessness.
Kingshaw’s mother does nothing to save her son from Hooper, or from his own fear. In fact, she contributes to his misery by determinedly trying to satisfy her own needs for money and companionship, and ignoring Kingshaw’s declarations of his hate for Hooper along the way. She asks him to “tell Mummy” if he is upset about anything, but when he tells her how much he dislikes Hooper she tells him it is “wicked” to say such things. Kingshaw is deeply ashamed of his mother, of her airs and pretences and the fact that she behaves “altogether without pride”. He knows he “ought to care about…his mother” but doesn’t. This is quite disturbing for a child to say, but it is understandable, as “she had never known anything about him”. This is proved by her remark to Mr Hooper about how “Charles is settling down so happily” at Warings. Charles is disgusted but is in no way surprised at her complete lack of understanding.
Susan Hill is very particular in the way she uses language to show Charles Kingshaw’s misery. The book is in third person narrative, mostly told from Kingshaw’s point of view, and often uses slightly naï¿½ve, childish language: “He felt absolutely alone, there might be no other person in the whole world.” There is also some informal language which pulls the reader into this child’s world, and endears us to him. An example of this is his thought that, “It always took longer than you expected, walking.” This makes us feel Kingshaw’s misery more during his moments of extreme terror. During these times the sentences get longer, punctuated by a series of commas, indicating a panicked, frantic train of thought: “He sweated a little, twisting this way and that, and reaching his left arm round behind him, to try and unhitch the string.” This clearly shows us his raw, desperate fear.
Rather than using lots of emotive, descriptive narration, which could detract focus from Kingshaw’s character, the writer has us experience I’m the King of the Castle through Charles Kingshaw’s feelings, experiences and memories. This is very effective as it lets us become more and more involved in Kingshaw’s character; our attachment to him builds up into a climax throughout the novel until he ultimately commits suicide. When this happens our hopes fall as Kingshaw did so many times before and does now, one final time.