I’m the King of the Castle is a book about children, but it’s not exactly a children’s book. Like another disturbing work about young people, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the novel paints a dark picture of human nature, suggesting that children—contrary to the way in which they’re often portrayed—are born with the capacity for cruelty, destruction, and evil. Hill’s novel revolves around two young characters, Edmund Hooper and Charles Kingshaw, whose minds (particularly Charles’s) she explores with detailed psychological realism. By emphasizing their frustration, anger, and sadistic behavior, Hill suggests that both boys are capable of doing awful things.
Through Hill’s portrayal of the thought processes of the two main characters, she shows that the dependence of children on their parents often gives them a sense of entitlement—in other words, they feel that they deserve certain things, not just from their parents but from the world at large. Children often have a keen sense for when they’ve been treated unfairly, and they’re forever comparing what they receive to what other children receive. For example, when Charles Kingshaw moves to Warings with his mother, Helena Kingshaw, he notices almost right away that he and Edmund Hooper aren’t treated equally. Confused and frightened, he clings to the logic of fairness. Charles feels that he is entitled to as much love and attention as Edmund receives. Therefore, when his mother pays more attention to Edmund than to him, or when Edmund steals one of Charles’s models, Charles is quick to cry foul, because he perceives other people’s behavior as being unfair. But of course, Charles isn’t alone in feeling this strong sense of entitlement. Edmund—both because he’s a particularly nasty child, and because he is accustomed to getting whatever he wants—feels that he’s entitled to treat Charles cruelly and effectively make him his servant. Charles and Edmund’s needs frequently come into conflict with one another. Charles wants a room to himself, and the freedom to play and be happy, while Edmund, who is much greedier, believes he alone is entitled to all of Warings, meaning that he’s unwilling to allow Charles even his tiny amount of independence and pleasure. When Charles and Edmund’s needs clash, Edmund quite often emerges the victor, causing Charles to grow frustrated and even fantasize about killing Edmund.
By portraying the entitlement, greed, and frustration of these two very different children, Hill raises the question of whether children are innately good. The novels shows children as being capable of both good and bad behavior and having both good and bad thoughts. Both characters seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, but they also both have destructive and even murderous tendencies. Over the course of the book, Edmund bullies Charles in various horrific ways. He preys on Charles’s fears of birds and dead animals, waging a full-scale psychological war on his nervous guest. He seems to have an almost preternatural instinct for what will scare Charles most. And because he seems to have almost no sense of compassion, he never hesitates to hurt Charles. Charles is a more complex character, whose thoughts and emotions Hill studies in greater detail. There are many times when Charles has the opportunity to hurt Edmund without fear of punishment. On many of these occasions, he does the right thing by helping Edmund instead of hurting him—and even saves Edmund’s life by pulling him out of a stream. At other points in the book, Charles contemplates pushing Edmund off a high staircase and wishes, over and over again, that Edmund would die. It’s crucial to recognize that Charles feels a strong instinct to help Edmund and a strong instinct to hurt him. Charles acts morally, but Hill makes it clear that he’s possessed of destructive capabilities. By depicting Charles in this way, Hill offers a portrait of childhood that is dark but not necessarily cynical. She recognizes that children sometimes want to do good, and she also recognizes that this instinct sometimes swallowed up by another, darker instinct. Edmund is an example of a child with almost no good in him. Charles, by contrast, is a much more nuanced character: because he hesitates to give in to evil or destructive impulses, he often finds himself under Edmund’s control. At the end of the novel, he finally gives his destructive instincts an outlet, but he does so by drowning himself.
Hill’s depiction of childhood is in many ways astonishingly accurate, and yet in other ways seems incomplete. Even though the novel is about two children, it never touches upon the wildness, goofiness, or whimsical sense of carelessness and fun that virtually all kids—no matter how miserable—experience at some point. Nor does the novel delve into the small acts of kindness and gentleness that children are capable of. Perhaps Hill omits these positive attributes, so often found in stories about children, in order to emphasize a larger point. In her book, children are deeply conflicted and possessed of inner demons. Adults, by comparison, are portrayed as being surprisingly naïve, with simplistic desires and ways of thinking about the world. By portraying adults in the way children are usually portrayed in books, and vice versa, Hill refutes the cliché that children are either simple or purely “good.” On the contrary, she suggests that children, because of the intensity of their emotions and the depths of their self-interest, are capable of being even more wicked than adults.
Childhood Quotes in I’m the King of the Castle
Hooper said nothing. He threw the photograph down into the suitcase and walked back to the window. Kingshaw knew that he had won, but he did not feel the winner; Hooper had conceded him nothing.
Perhaps I should strike him, Joseph Hooper thought, for speaking to me in that way, perhaps it is very foolish to let him get the upper hand, to allow such insolence. I do not like his supercilious expression. I should assert myself. But he knew that he would not. He deliberated too long, and then it could not be done.
He imagined the furry body of the moth against the pads of Hooper's fingers. He was ashamed of being so afraid, and could not help it, he only wanted to get out, to stop having to see the terrible moths. Hooper watched him. There was a moment when they both stood, quite still, waiting. Then, Hooper whipped around and pushed past Kingshaw without warning he was out of the door, turning the key sharply in the lock. After a moment, his footsteps went away down the hall. A door closed somewhere.
They were gratified with one another, and with this new arrangement of their lives, and so it was easy to say, 'How well the boys have settled down together! How nice to see them enjoying themselves! How good it is for them not to be alone!' For they talked at length about their children, knowing nothing of the truth.
Very deliberately, Kingshaw inserted his forefingers under the string, and pulled the satchel off his back. He untied his anorak from it, and spread it out on the ground, and then sat down. Hooper stood above him, his eyes flicking about nervously, his face as pale as his limbs in the dim light.
Kingshaw knew that he was the loser. His momentary burst of exultation, and his feeling of superiority over Hooper counted for nothing, they were always short-lived. It was really only a question of which of them walked in front, for a while. Kingshaw was used to lacking any confidence in himself, to knowing that he could do nothing very well. Until now, he had not much cared he'd got by. Now, he cared, his pride had risen, he could no longer be docile about himself. Everything was unfair.
He hated his mother more than anybody, more even than Hooper, now. He had a terrible twisted-up feeling in his belly, because of it. Now, Hooper knew. 'There are things I see that you don't.'
There wasn't anything he could do. Except get away. It was his father’s fault, really, because his dying had been the start of it all, the not having enough money, and living in other people's houses.
Oh, don't, don’t . . . Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! . . .'His voice rose suddenly to a scream, and he sat up, still asleep, drumming his legs. His eyes were screwed tight shut. 'Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! . . .'
‘I want an aspirin. My head hurts again.'
'You shall have one, dear.' Mrs Helena Kingshaw jumped up. I shall not make a favourite of my own child, she thought, especially when all the blame for this lies with him.
'I'm Head of Dorm for next term.'
Kingshaw went cold. He knew that it was sure to be true, and that it would be the worst of all things that were coming. Hooper had power now, here. He would have power there, too, then.
But he did not think it likely that he could ever be believed, nothing could change, because he had meant what he thought and said about Hooper, and still meant it. It was only being afraid of this empty church, and of the white marble warrior lying on his tombstone in the side chapel, that made him kneel down and tell lies. It was no good. He had wanted Hooper to be dead, because then things would have been better. His punishment was that Hooper was not dead, that everything was the same, and the thought of that was worse than anything. He acknowledged that he feared Hooper more than he feared anything in the world.
Kingshaw thought, he knows everybody and they know him. He lives here, and I live here, now, but I don't know anyone or anything, except Mrs Boland and the woman at the post office. Hooper doesn't know anybody, either, we might as well be on the moon. He thought of Warings, surrounded by the high hedge, dark and inaccessible. All the time, this other boy had been watching, aware of him.
From the doorway, watching them, Kingshaw thought, Hooper believes him, he isn't going to make him open the case and put his hand on one, he isn't going to make him prove it, he just believes him. That's the way Fielding is, that's the way you should be, It had been different with him. Hooper had known, from the very first moment he had looked into Fielding’s face, that it would all be easy, that he would always be able to make him afraid. Why, thought Kingshaw, why? His eyes suddenly pricked with tears, at the unfairness of it. WHY?
For a second, he hesitated, part of his mind starting to come awake. And then he thought of everything, of what else would happen, he thought of the things Hooper had done and what he was going to do, of the new school and the wedding of his mother. He began to splash and stumble forwards, into the middle of the stream, where the water was deepest. When it had reached up to his thighs, he lay down slowly and put his face full into it and breathed in a long, careful breath.
When he saw Kingshaw’s body, upside down in the water, Hooper thought suddenly, it was because of me, I did that, it was because of me, and a spurt of triumph went through him.