The Duke of Bilgewater and the King of Kings

by Fr. Brendan Hankins, O.Praem.


Jim said to Huckleberry, “Don’t it surprise you de way dem kings carries on, Huck?” “No,” I say, “it don’t.” “Why don’t it, Huck?” “Well, it don’t, because it’s in the breed, I reckon they’re all alike.” “But, Huck, dese kings o’ ourn is reglar rapscallions. Dat’s jist what dey is. Dey’s reglar rapscallions.” “Well, that’s what I’m a-saying,” says Huck, “all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.”

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain paints a funny but disparaging picture of kings, dukes, and just about anyone associated with any kind of hierarchy or authority. Huck, a runaway adolescent boy, and Jim, a runaway slave, find that they are both happiest when free from slave catchers, parental figures, and all kinds of authority figures, when they are alone on their raft heading down the Mississippi River. However, Huck and Jim’s good time is ruined when two men jump onboard their raft and reveal their identities.

The first disturber of Huck and Jim’s peace introduces himself: “Gentlemen,” says the young man very solemnly, “I will reveal the secret of my birth, for I feel I may have confidence in you. By rights I am the duke of Bridgewater!” Jim’s eyes bugged out when he heard that, and Huck’s did too. Then the other man, jealous of the newfound attention the duke was getting on account of revealing himself as the Duke of Bridgewater, said, “Bilgewater, kin I trust you? Bilgewater, I am the late Dauphin!” You bet you, Jim and Huck stared this time. Then the duke says: “You are what?” “Yes, my friend, it is true—your eyes is lookin’ at this very moment on the poor disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette.” “You! At your age! No! You mean you’re the late Charlemagne. You must be six or seven hundred years old, at the very least,” says the Duke.

“Trouble has done it, Bilgewater, trouble has done it,” says the dauphin, “Trouble has brung these grey hairs and this premature balditude. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin’, exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin’ rightful King of France.” After the self-proclaimed duke and king announce their identities, they begin bickering over which of the two of them should be served by Huck and Jim first and get the best spot to sleep on the raft. After they appear to have come to an agreement, Huck says to himself, “If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn’t no objections, ‘long as it would keep peace in the family. If I never learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.” After Huck and Jim spend more time with the king and the duke and see that they are nothing but thieves and liars, Huck says to Jim, “I wish we could hear of a country that’s out of kings.”

In contrast to Twain’s depiction of authority figures, in which those at the top of a hierarchy are the cause of conflict, dissension, and even slavery while those on the bottom are the ones who acquiesce to their selfish demands in order to maintain peace and tranquility, the reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a completely different depiction of peace being re-established in the social order. St. Luke explains that “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” The disciples continued to grow, and on account of the growing numbers, differences and disagreements arose. However, the disciples turn to the apostles in order to settle the dispute and reestablish peace within the early Christian community, who in turn selected seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom they appointed to the task of serving the other disciples.

In St. Thomas’s Letter to the King of Cyprus, he instructs the King and all those having positions of authority, when he says that “the chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace”—which he then compares to the duty of the captain of ship, to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea and to bring it unharmed to a safe port or harbor—as Jesus brings the boat of the Apostles safety to shore in today’s Gospel. St. Thomas supports his argument with the authority of the Apostle, who says “Be careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” The more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be.

Therefore, the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many, as it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than what is several. However, St. Thomas, while affirming the King of Cyprus in his role as King, goes on to warn him that while government by a King is ideally the best, it is also susceptible to become the worst. He says that the power of one who rules unjustly works to the detriment of the multitude, in that he diverts the common good of the multitude to his own benefit. Therefore, for the same reason that, in a just government, the government is better in proportion as the ruling power is one, so the contrary will be true of an unjust government; namely, that the ruling power will be more harmful in proportion as it is more unitary. Consequently, tyranny is more harmful than oligarchy, and oligarchy more harmful than democracy.

Moreover, a government becomes unjust by the fact that the ruler, paying no heed to the common good, seeks his own private good. Wherefore the further he departs from the common good, the more unjust will his government be. There is greatest potential for departure from the common good in a tyranny, where the advantage of only one man is sought. Thus, the government of a tyrant is the most unjust. It is proper therefore, in order to maintain the peace of his kingdom and to refrain from seeking his own interests and disregarding those of his own people, that a king look to God for his reward, for a servant looks to his master for the reward of his service. The reward of the king is honour and glory. What worldly and frail honour can indeed be likened to this honour that a man be made a “citizen with the Saints and a kinsman of God,” numbered among the sons of God, and that he obtain the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom with Christ? And further, what glory of human praise can be compared to the testimony of God, Who promises to those who confess Him that He will confess them before the Angels of God in the glory of the Father? They who seek this glory will find it, and they will win the glory of men which they do not seek.

So whether we are given the command of a kingdom, ship, raft, community, school, class, or family, let us look to the risen Christ Who was sacrificed for us and is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, from Whom all authority, honor, and power is given. Amen.

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