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In Reginald at the Theatre, Saki writes:

[Reginald]: “There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.”

Why is it that "It always turns out to be the King of Sweden"? Is this a reference to the then contemporary Swedish monarch, Oscar II (who reigned from 1872-1907), and if so why? If not, may this relate to a trope founded on a Swedish stereotype?

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The quote is a parody of the folklore motif known as the king in disguise. In Norse mythology Odin was said to wander in disguise among humans. Shakespeare used the king-in-disguise motif in Act 4, scene 1 of Henry V. Outside of fiction, a number of real kings and queens have been said to disguise themselves, e.g. King Charles XI of Sweden (1655 – 1697), who supposedly wanted to check for himself whether local officials were corrupt and suppressed the people. (A blog on Weebly.com is not the most reliable source, but stories that aren't based on true facts are still valid illustrations of a specific motif.)

The statement that it "always turns out to be the King of Sweden" might be an allusion to King Charles XI of Sweden, but the key part is the adverb "always", which is a comic exaggeration, since Charles XI is not the only royal in history who disguised himself.

The quote may also parody a motif found in legends and fairy tales: a character meets an unassuming or even unattractive person and their behaviour towards that person turns out to have an unexpected effect.

An example from Arthurian legends is the story of Gawain and the loathly lady, for example in The Marriage of Sir Gawain or The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In the latter story, Gawain must consent to marry an "old hag" in order to solve a serious problem that King Arthur is confronted with. Quoting from Wikipedia:

Later, the newlyweds [Gawain and the loathly lady] retire to their bedroom. After brief hesitation, Gawain assents to treat his new bride as he would if she were desirable, and go to bed with her as a dutiful husband is expected to do. However, when he looks up, he is astonished to see not an ugly hag, but the most beautiful woman he has ever seen standing before him.

Another variation on the same theme is The Frog Prince, which is best known in the version preserved by the brothers Grimm (emphasis added):

In the tale, a spoiled princess reluctantly befriends the Frog Prince, whom she met after dropping a gold ball into a pond, and he retrieves it for her in exchange for her friendship. The Frog Prince magically transforms into a handsome prince. In the original Grimm version of the story, the frog's spell was broken when the princess threw it against the wall, while in modern versions the transformation is triggered by the princess kissing the frog.

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  • The Gawain and Frog Prince stories feel like a different sub-branch of the broader "disguised person reveals themselves" trope. Closer examples include Baucis and Philemon from classical Greek mythology, or Polixenes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Another example from real life is King Alfred the Great of Wessex. – Rand al'Thor Aug 24 at 13:51
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    @Randal'Thor It is a different sub-branch, but I mentioned it because the Saki quote covers two aspects: (1) X in disguise tries to find out certain things about his subjects and (2) how people respond to someone in disguise and what consequences this has for them. The first part of my answer covers the first aspect, but second part covers the second aspect. – Tsundoku Aug 24 at 14:56
  • per tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/main/kingincognito it's a well-known activity for Swedish monarchs, and several are mentioned there. Possibly worth some additional research? – Alex M Aug 24 at 22:33
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    "King in disguise" is motif K1812 in Stith Thompson's Motif-index of Folk-literature. Other disguise motifs appear in K1800–1899, for example, gods visiting mortals in disguise (K1811), disguise as menial (K1816), disguise as monk (K1826.1), and so on. – Gareth Rees Aug 25 at 12:22
  • @GarethRees Thanks. I had not checked that source. – Tsundoku Aug 25 at 12:29
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Many Swedish kings have been known for travelling incognito, but the most likely reference is to Gustav IV Adolf, who was deposed in 1809 and spent the rest of his life travelling the continent using the name Colonel Gustafsson (and other aliases). He would have met many people who at first didn't realize he was a former king of Sweden.

At the time Saki was writing ex-king Gustav would have been long dead (he died in 1837), but it's close enough in time that older people could still remember meeting him.

Source: Wikipedia

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Saki was likely taking a jab at the popular fiction of the time, in which a people of the upper class were often going in disguise or being mistaken for commoners.

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    Hi @Brandon, welcome to Literature SE! Please consider substantiating your answer with some evidence from the text. As it stands, it works better as a comment. You can take our short tour to know more about how our site works. – user5387 Aug 24 at 20:19

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