The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, published in 1938, was Dr. Seuss’s second book. It was one of my favourite books when I was a child in the 1970s; re-reading this as an adult is a bit strange as I can still remember reading it with a child’s eye. For anyone who is more used to Suess’s Cat in the Hat style, ‘500 Hats’ may seem a bit odd as it is told in a prose style and although it reads more like a normal fairy tale it is still undoubtedly an original Dr. Seuss story. The drawings supplement the text beautifully; they’re in black and white except for the hats which are coloured red. As a child I loved noticing subtle things in the pictures that were mentioned in the text and still found myself doing the same thing as an adult.
The story begins with King Derwin looking out from his mountaintop castle over his lands, which makes him feel ‘mighty important’. We then see Bartholomew looking up at the castle from his hut on the edge of a bog, which makes him feel ‘mighty small’. Seuss wastes no time with preliminaries, however, and we soon see Bartholomew going to town to sell some cranberries. When he’s in town there’s a great furore as the king and his entourage are travelling through the streets. The king stops when he notices a little boy who hasn’t taken his hat off in the king’s presence—the boy is, of course, Bartholomew Cubbins. But this is where the confusion begins because Bartholomew has taken his hat from his head, he’s holding it in his hands, it’s just that another identical red hat with a feather is on his head. To the king, this is just impertinence and when Bartholomew is unable to remove his hat without another one appearing he’s sent off to the castle to be interrogated, with red hats flying from his head and falling in his wake.
At the castle, the king, along with all the Lords and noblemen, interrogate Bartholomew, while Sir Alaric, Keeper of the Records, keeps a record of the number of hats produced; it’s not long before we’re at 135. The King is not amused and calls for Sir Snipps, hatmaker, Nadd, a Wise Man, as well as Nadd’s father and grandfather to try to unravel the mystery—but they cannot solve it. Now the King’s insolent nephew, Wilfred, gets involved and suggests using a bow and arrow to shoot the hat off of Bartholomew’s head. He has no luck as it just produces more hats; the Yeoman of the Bowmen has no more luck than Wilfred and calls it ‘black magic’. The King calls for his magicians to use their magic on Bartholomew but is furious when he’s informed it may take ten years to work. The nasty little boy, Wilfred, suggests to the King that he should just chop off Bartholomew’s head and so he’s sent to the dungeon to meet the executioner.
The executioner was whistling and swinging his axe idly, because at the moment he had nothing to do. In spite of his business, he really seemed to be a very pleasant man.
“The King says you must chop off my head,” said Bartholomew.
“Oh, I’d hate to,” said the executioner, looking at him with a friendly smile. “You seem such a nice boy.”
“Well…the King says you have to,” said Bartholomew, “so please get it over with.”
“All right,” sighed the executioner, “but first you’ve got to take off your hat.”
“Why?” asked Bartholomew.
“I don’t know,” said the executioner, “but it’s one of the rules . I can’t execute anyone with his hat on.”
“All right,” said Bartholomew, “you take it off for me.”
The executioner leaned across the chopping block and flipped off Bartholomew’s hat.
“What’s this?” he gasped, blinking through the holes in his mask, as another hat sat on Bartholomew’s head. He flipped this one off…then another and another.
As the executioner gives up on this technicality, the wicked Wilfred suggest just shoving Bartholomew off a tall tower. However, while Batholomew is climbing the steps to the top the hats, which have been up to now just duplicates of his original hat, now become increasingly ornate until the last hat is so beautiful with its ostrich plumes and large ruby that the King offers him 500 gold coins for the hat…and the now rich, but hatless, Bartholomew returns home.
Ok, I couldn’t resist telling the whole story, but hopefully there won’t be any children reading this blog to get upset. Anyway the fun with Seuss is the telling of the story, the wordplay and the imaginative illustrations. What a wonderful book from 1938—which was read as a part of the weeklong ‘1938 Club’ project hosted by Karen and Simon.