Theo goes through a whole lot, but the narrator never gets too down about it. He or she maintains a relatively upbeat point-of-view, never commenting that Theo's life is at a dead end or anything of that sort—if anything, the narrator regards misfortunes as just steps in Theo's journey, which may lead to good or bad things. For the person leading us through this book, in other words, it's all a part of life.
Even when Theo seems at his wit's end, though the narrator pauses to describe his misery briefly, he or she—like our main character—pretty much gets right back to the road. Check it out:
Until then, he had believed in his own good nature. He pleaded that he was a kindly, honorable human being. But the bloodied face rose up in front of him. His stomach heaved. He doubled over, retching. He sat on the ground a while, head pressed against his knees. He swore every way he knew: Never again would he do such a deed.
He climbed at last to his feet. The road lay a short distance beyond the field. He set of for it. He did not look back. He did not dare. (3.49-50)
Theo just keeps on trekking, not dwelling on anything for his own sake, and the book does the same. Our narrator could've lingered longer on the horror haunting Theo, but instead he or she fixes their gaze forward, ready to see what comes next.
Technically Westmark is a fantasy novel because it takes place in a made-up land, though besides this, it's pretty much just full of realistic elements. Unlike most books in the fantasy genre, this one doesn't have a lick of magic in it—and this means that the conflicts our characters face are based in reality (though sometimes their circumstances are a little extreme… it's not every day that someone turns out to be a princess, after all).
As far as coming of age goes, this book isn't quite firmly rooted in the genre—this isn't just Theo's story after all—but insofar as Theo hangs out at center stage for a good portion of it, it's definitely a coming of age tale. After all, Theo goes from contented apprentice who happily follows orders, to rebellious printing press operator, ready to do anything for those he cares about. He certainly comes into his own as this book progresses, and really seems like an adult when it ends, and because of this, Westmark falls under the coming of age genre too.
Some titles are tricky, Shmoopsters—and goodness knows, plenty of characters in this book are too—but Westmark as a title is about as simple as they come: it's named after it's setting.
Westmark is the name of the kingdom in which this whole adventure takes place. While Theo and Mickle are the main characters in the book, the story isn't just about them—it's also about the evolution of a kingdom and its people, from a state virtually ruled by tyrannical Chief Minister Cabbarus to its rightful restoration to a just monarchy under King Augustine and his heir, Princess Augusta (formerly known as Mickle).
Just as we see Theo and his cohorts mature and realize the complexities of life, Westmark the nation goes on a similar journey. It travels from rule under a despot to a decent, non-repressive land once again—all thanks to Theo and Mickle, of course.
The ending is a happily-ever-after… sort of. For one, Cabbarus is out of power, the king is ruling again, and his family has been reunited. Yay, right? However Mickle isn't exactly keen on staying put in Marienstat to take up her duties as heir to the throne, though she's definitely in a better spot than before, back when she was an urchin. But at least she's still got Theo.
Or does she? Theo's discontent, as well. He doesn't really have a place in the new administration, so Dr. Torrens, who becomes the new chief minister (that's one happy ending for the rebels—a friend in power), suggests he travel the kingdom to see what the people want. Is this a triumph for democracy? Not quite, since Westmark remains a kingdom—but the people's wishes will definitely get heard more going forward. Theo agrees to the mission, but only once he finds a firm place for himself when he comes back—by Mickle's side.
Guess what? Westmark takes place in a fictional kingdom called… wait for it… Westmark. Go figure, right? Though this place is as not-real as places come, though, it still seems pretty realistic. It has a ruling king and functioning government (albeit one with a corrupt chief minister), and it's filled with plenty of real-life problems, like rebellion, government oppression, poverty, and more. In fact, the more we think about it, the more it seems like the only thing made-up about Westmark is its name.
Westmark doesn't have any major distinguishing features that make it that different from any particular country. There are a few important landmarks, however. The capital, Marienstat, is pretty old, and the palace is called the Juliana. It's new—the previous palace, the Old Juliana, is decrepit now, so it was abandoned, though Cabbarus still likes to hang out there (because of course he does).
There are lot of small towns in Westmark, like Dorning—where Theo comes from—and Kessel, where Las Bombas pretends to be Mynheer Bloomsa and gets robbed by Skeit. The Freyborg is a bigger city and home to a university, in addition to the Fingers, a marshy land where Keller, Torrens, and Sparrow and Weasel get washed up. The point is that Westmark's a fairly typical place—cities, small towns, rural areas—so though the story is fictitious, it hangs out on familiar turf.
Westmark isn't particularly difficult to read in and of itself—the language is straightforward and the characters are easily interpretable. But its themes are deeply political, and it can be difficult to discern just what the author is trying to say about really important matters, like ethics and government. As the novel goes on, Alexander introduces moral ambiguities that complicate how the characters see themselves—and how we, as readers, understand their actions. Instead of making it a super hard book to read, though, instead it just makes it more interesting.
The author communicates characters' actions and thoughts in an orderly, methodical manner without excessive comments on these deeds. Don't think this means Alexander's just scratching the surface, though—he delves deep into his characters' psyches, but just doesn't explain them in an overly flowery way. Check out this example:
Mickle still sprawled on the turf. Twice during the night, Theo had gone anxiously to her side. Except for that one strange spell of weeping, she had slept peacefully as she slept now, a half-smile on her wan face. Reluctant to wake her, for some moments he looked down at the girl, feeling like an eavesdropper on a secret part of her life. At last, he took her by the shoulders and gently shook her.
"Come along. It's morning."
"Go away," mumbled the girl. "I get up at noon."
Theo continued urging, but what finally brought Mickle to her feet was the aroma of eggs which Musket was frying in a saucepan. While she attacked her breakfast, the count polished the lens of a lantern, then set it down beside several large round looking glasses. (8.3-6)
Mickle has just joined the company and Theo is recounting her first morning with them. Lloyd Alexander aptly portrays his emotions, thoughts, and actions, but does so without adding too much commentary. He allows the characters and their words and deeds to speak for themselves.
The printing press is more than just a bunch of blocks used to create books, Shmoopsters. In this book, the press represents a whole lot—namely, freedom. When Theo—as Anton's apprentice—takes on an assignment from Musket, the cops crack down on him for printing things that could potentially harm the government. And by potentially harm the government, we are referring to totally benign things that have nothing to do with the government.
In other words, rules have been put in place to severely restrict printing in the name of deterring criminal activity—but the only thing actually being deterred are people's liberties, including freedom of speech. Check out this bit from the raid on Anton's printing press:
Anton was shouting and brandishing his inkdauber. The officer paid no heed. He halted in the middle of the shop. In a voice saturated with boredom, having made the same declaration so often that he knew it by rote, he informed Anton that all printing establishments were now, by Royal Warrant, subject to inspection.
"With the view," he went on, "to discover unlawful publications and criminal conduct—" (2.4-5)
The cops are performing these raids with such regularity that the officer actually sounds bored while explaining why he's there. This lets us know that printing presses are being strictly regulated all over the place, and all the time.
When Theo's printing press is destroyed, so is his way of life, so he assaults one of the soldiers invading his space—but this turns him into a fugitive, which only further alters his existence. This is even truer for Anton, who dies fleeing from the soldiers. Theo's entire world is upended, and he's forced to start from scratch in a new place with new people—and in this way, we can understand the printing press as not only representing freedom, but also the past.
Freedom of the press comes up again when Theo's spending time with Florian. Cabbarus wants to restrict what people can print so they don't spread opinions that differ from his own, and as a sign of his opposition to Cabbarus, Florian wants to install a few printing presses in his town—and he puts Theo at the head of this operation. Reopening printing presses is Theo's way of regaining personal agency, helping others express themselves too, and helping build a freer society. Check out this passage as an example:
"Cabbarus makes it his business to close print shops," Florian said. "We make it our business to open them. At least one, so far. When the king's officers tear down a press, we salvage a few pieces, like little birds picking up crumbs." (15.4)
One of the ways that Florian defies Cabbarus—and works toward the society he thinks everyone deserves—is by creating an underground printing press. By disseminating his own information, Florian not only flouts the chief minister, but also propagates his own message, and when he does, we see the press representing home and commitment to a brighter future to boot.
Cabbarus is a spymaster extraordinaire, and he confesses to keeping track of everyone and everything in his kingdom—at least, as best as he can. So Cabby's got to get intelligence from what's going on all over Westmark, so he cultivates spies that report to him… and what does he call this collection of loyal eyes and ears? Why his garden, of course. Check it out:
Out of respect for his position, the chief minister allowed himself certain small luxuries. One of these was a private garden that yielded, in all seasons, blossoms of information. Cabbarus fertilized it with generous applications of money. The harvest was always more plentiful and usually more accurate than the labored, vegetablelike reports of provincial constables and police spies. Cabbarus earnestly believed his rank entitled him to this higher quality of produce. Since he cultivated his garden personally, he saw no reason to share it.
As in the most carefully tended gardens, the occasional weed sprang up or plant withered. Cabbarus had his disappointments. The individual he counted on to deal with Torrens had not thrived. This in itself did not trouble the chief minister. As a precaution, the man would have been pruned, in any case. What nettled Cabbarus was that he had no inkling of the doctor's fate. (18.1-2)
The knowledge Cabbarus culls from his spies is essential to—and impossible to parse away from—his power, though Cabbarus prefers to think of it in much prettier terms. His spy network is his garden and, when a good piece of info comes his way, his flowers have bloomed—and, conversely, when he finds himself with a bad seed (to work with his metaphor), he simply prunes it (which is a much nicer thing to say than kill).
Getting information before everyone else is key to Cabbarus's ability to stay ahead of the game and in control of the kingdom, and this is exactly what his garden helps him do. So when we think of his garden, we can immediately think of it as symbolizing information, control, and Cabbarus's investment in power.
On a more subtle level, though, we might also think of the garden as symbolizing deception. Part of this is because it's made up of spies who, you know, deceive people—but a bigger part has to do with how the garden works as a story Cabbarus tells himself. It's almost like he lies to himself about what he's really doing in the world, avoiding the harsh realities of human lives caught up in his power play by pretending it's all one big pretty, flowery picture.
Let those bells ring, Shmoopsters, because Princess Augusta is back. After his daughter's (purported) death, King Augustine ordered that the bells in the tower of the Old Juliana palace to never ring again since they were his girl's favorite. The silencing of the bells, then, symbolizes the way the king literally shut down when he believed his daughter to be dead—while the bells remain silent, the king is incapacitated… and Cabbarus is in charge.
Once Mickle/Princess Augusta returns, though, the bells begin to ring again. Theo initiates their ringing, albeit unintentionally, when he chases Cabbarus up to the bell tower. But no matter—it's a sign of a new era, a return to the good old days when King Augustine ruled and his daughter was alive and well. The bells are alive with the sound of music:
The guards were racing up the steps into the belfry, with Musket scuttling ahead of them. The dwarf's mouth was open, shouting. Theo heard none of his words. Above him, the bell had stirred into life, its voice resounding in the others that hung beside it. The clangor exploded in his ears. He was being hoisted up and pulled back over the railing, still gripping Cabbarus. Theo's hand had frozen on the man's arm. Someone was prying his fingers loose. (25.27)
Once the bells ring, it's a sign that life will be restored to King Augustine through his daughter's resurrection. And, insofar as their silence symbolizes Cabbarus's manipulative power grab, when they ring out again, their sounding represents the end of Cabbarus's terrible rein.
We don't know the guy who's telling this story, but it's clearly not one of our heroes. He can look into Theo's head and into Cabbarus's brain, which nobody can do here (not even Dr. Absalom), which is great for us since it helps us understand each character's actions and motivations. In general, the narrator appears to be an unbiased third-party observer who just tells it like he sees it.
If the point-of-view was in the first-person, the audience wouldn't get nearly as good of an understanding of each character's motivations. For example, if Theo told the story, we would never know what Cabbarus was up to back in Marienstat. Or if Mickle narrated, we'd miss out on most of Theo's journey and the role Cabbarus plays in oppressing the people.
By providing such an all-encompassing voice, the author allows a bit of insight into the brains of many characters, providing the readers with a lot of information that allows us to get a really good picture of everything that's going on.
Theo is a printer's apprentice in a tiny town in Westmark. He likes his job as assistant to Anton—it's something he's good at—and he can make some money doing it… at least until Cabbarus, the Chief Minister to the King, began restricting what people can and cannot have printed. Theo's a fan of small-town life and isn't looking for big change. So, you know, big change is bound to come his way.
He might not want what's coming his way, but Theo's going to get it. Soldiers come to arrest him and Anton for illegally printing certain materials, and Theo flees—a wanted criminal—then joins up with the disreputable Count Las Bombas and Musket, and meets the urchin Mickle.
As Theo and his motley band of friends crisscross the country, he begins to question his values. Does violence have a place in life? What is good? And, for that matter, what is bad? When his gang winds up imprisoned, Theo takes up with a group of revolutionaries—led by Florian—to help break Las Bombas and his cohorts out of prison. At the same time, Cabbarus is trying to get more power and ruin King Augustine.
Theo and Florian's Children go to rescue Las Bombas, Musket, and Mickle from the town of Nierkeeping, where they're imprisoned. Not only does Theo perform a prison break, but he confronts his moral compass when he almost kills a guy—but doesn't, thereby endangering his friend Justin. He officially joins the rebellion and realizes the polarizing ethics within himself. He's a man now, having done some good hard soul searching.
Cabbarus is super-greedy and he finally gets his just desserts. When he captures Theo and the gang, and brings them to court in order to further his own agenda, he gets a surprise—Mickle is really the dead princess he wanted to get out of his boss's mind. Ha. Cabbarus tried to kill her years ago, which Mickle finally remembers. Theo chases him down and decides to banish him. It's over for Cabby and his lackey Pankratz… or is it?
So Mickle's now officially Princess Augusta and she's not too crazy about her official position—but Theo's not even entirely sure what his role is. Should he stick around with his girl? Go hang with Florian and his gaggle of misfits? After seeing the last of his friends, Las Bombas and Musket, go off on their journeys, he tries to figure out what to do next. The new chief minister, Dr. Torrens, recommends he go on a tour of Westmark to figure out what the people want. Mickle recommends that he do it too—and assures him she'll be waiting for him. Ooh la la.