Louis I, King of the Sheep: An Illustrated Parable of How Power Changes Us

A subtle reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds.

by Maria Popova

“Never be hard upon people who are in your power,”Charles Dickens counseled in a letter of advice to his young son. And yet power has a way of calling forth the hardest and most unhandsome edges of human nature — something John F. Kennedy observed in his spectacular eulogy to Robert Frost, lamenting that power “leads men towards arrogance” and “narrows the areas of man’s concern.” Redemption, he argued, is only possible when we recognize that “what counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity.”

It’s a difficult lesson to impart even on the most intelligent and receptive of grownups, and one especially crucial in planting the seeds of good personhood in childhood, when we first brush with power dynamics in ways so real and raw that they can imprint us for life.

That’s what French illustrator Olivier Tallec accomplishes with extraordinary humor, sensitivity, and warmth in Louis I, King of the Sheep (public library) — one of the loveliest children’s books I’ve ever encountered.

Inspired by watching children tussle with power on the playground, it tells the story of a humble sheep named Louis who becomes self-appointed king after a fickle gust of wind deposits a royal crown at his feet.

As Louis I rises to power by nothing more than chance, he gradually transmogrifies into an entitled and arrogant tyrant — a woefully familiar behavioral pattern calling to mind the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, that cornerstone of social psychology in which students were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock-jail and the “guards” proceeded to exploit their randomly assigned power to a point of devastating inhumanity.

Intoxicated with his newfound authority, Louis I goes on to find himself a throne “from which to hand down justice,” begins addressing the people, and embarks upon such royal activities as hunting — even for lions.

He receives the world’s greatest artists at his palace and esteemed ambassadors from distant lands come to bow at his feet.

Eventually, he becomes so drunk on power that he decides he must bring order to his dominion by driving out all sheep who don’t resemble him — perhaps Tallec’s subtle invitation to parents to teach kids about the Holocaust, that darkest of episodes in the history of human nature, undergirded by the very same atrocious impulses.

And then, just like that, another fickle gust of wind takes the crown away.

The story is at heart an imaginative and intelligent parable of the inherent responsibility that comes with power. Embedded in it is also a reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds, even if it’s more flattering to believe otherwise.

Complement this immeasurably delightful gem with Adrienne Rich on what power really means and JFK on poetry and power, then revisit Tallec’s playful and poignant illustrated allegory of why we fight.

Louis I, King of the Sheep comes from Enchanted Lion Books, the independent Brooklyn-based powerhouse behind such uncommonly wonderful picture-books as The Lion and the BirdBeastly VerseLittle Boy Brown, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books