HE lives resplendently in a palace but likes nothing better than being down on the farm cleaning out the stables. Although governed by the strictest protocol in what he can do and say, he has slipped out at night and met unofficially with the poor and the homeless. Often the subject of action-packed photos -- parachuting, scuba diving, wind surfing -- he's equally interested in the arts: He paints, writes, and plays the cello.
He has shaken hands all over the world, met with Pope John Paul II, and will dine this week at the White House with President and Mrs. Reagan. But he craves solitude. His unorthodox interests include alternative medicine, modified vegetarianism, and organic farming.
His full name is Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor and his titles would consume an entire paragraph. But he is better known as Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, heir apparent to the English throne.
For much of his adult life, the news media were obsessed with one issue: Who would he marry? The marriage ended the speculation, but his choice of a bride seems to have heightened curiosity about the royal family. Not that Buckingham Palace was unaware that his bride, Lady Diana Spencer, would be a new phenomenon. It had just not expected that interest in her would endure for so long -- and so intensely.
To all this attention the Princess of Wales lowers her head and says she thinks the media pay her far too much attention. Certainly the preoccupation with Princess Diana has tended to obscure the nature of the man at her side.
In an interview with the Monitor, the Prince of Wales's official biographer, Anthony Holden, described Charles as a man adept at handling the media, yet surprisingly vulnerable. ``When you've grown up in the kind of artificial world he has grown up in, even when you've gone to school -- which no other Prince of Wales has done -- you end up a little unworldly, a little naive, and a little innocent.''
An example: his intention to celebrate communion with the Pope. It seemed a wonderfully symbolic way of promoting unity, but could have put his own claim to the throne in jeopardy. It was Queen Elizabeth II (regarded by one who follows the monarchy closely as a ``very smart cookie'') who quickly grasped the inherent dangers. She recalled that the 1701 Act of Settlement specifically forbids anybody in the line of the English throne from taking Roman Catholic communion. The well-intentioned act of e cumenism did not take place.
The Prince's comments on poverty and homelessness, and his view that unemployment has contributed to Britain's inner-city riots, have not endeared him to the Conservative government which has sees the disorder as the result of just plane lawlessness.
In another public controversy Prince Charles was forced to disown certain remarks attributed to him by his architectural adviser, Rod Hackney, who had indicated that the Prince was concerned that by the time he became king he might well be ruling over a nation divided into the haves and the have-nots. Buckingham Palace subsequently agreed that the basic tenor of the remarks was correct, but not the exact wording.
Whatever restrictions there may be on the Prince's actions or utterances, the revelations about him can only be ``in Charles's interests'' maintains Mr. Holden, author of ``Charles, Prince of Wales.'' What intrigues Holden is what the future holds for Britain. He sees a country ``going down the drain economically and socially.'' The potential risks for the monarchy in times of stress -- which could coincide with Prince Charles's stewardship -- would be considerable.
``More than ever,'' says Holden, ``the wealth, comfort, and class aspects of the monarchy could become unpopular or socially divisive. Charles needs to be seen bringing the monarchy into concern with public life.'' The Prince of Wales's ability to cross that divide impresses those who have witnessed him first hand.
Nicholas Fenton of Centrepoint in London, which maintains a shelter for young homeless, recalls a private visit Prince Charles made last July. Apart from Mr. Fenton, no one knew about the proposed visit. ``He came about nine in the evening. Very casual. A sports jacket. A tie,'' says Fenton, who spent about 15 minutes briefing the Prince on what he might find in the shelter where some 30 of the 35 youngsters between about 16 and 19 had come off the streets that night.
When they arrived the youngsters were eating. ``We didn't know what to expect,'' Fenton says. ``I said absolutely nothing. There seemed an awfully long silence. Nothing happened. Then one of them recognized who he was and whispered to the person sitting next to him. In a mini-second there was a cacophony of sound. Everyone jumped up and rushed toward him with enthusiasm as though he were a long lost friend.''
Weren't they cynical about the royal visitor?
``Cynical? Absolutely not. A lot of them said afterwards, in fact one of them I think said so at the time, that they were delighted he had bothered to come down.'' Prince Charles talked with about half a dozen of them privately for 20 to 25 minutes.
Fenton, who confesses he was terribly nervous and had several sleepless nights before the visit, says he was impressed with the Prince's concern. ``He's a good listener. He asks the key questions. He has an inquiring mind. He's obviously well briefed. He walked into a room of people he's never met and where he was not protected by the podium and cameras. He was brilliant. He put everyone at ease. He was very relaxed.
``I think he was surprised to see that that this sort of organization still exists in 1985 and was incredibly busy with people who were homeless. It brought home to him what he had read, '' says Fenton. ``I think at first he was a bit -- no, I won't say confused -- he was trying to pull his thoughts together to think what influence he could bring to bear without getting politically involved.''
Prince Charles did follow up his visit. Through one of his trusts he made a donation to help the organization train volunteer social workers. He also has made two of his London homes available to the homeless.
The Prince is sometimes faulted for thinking there are easy solutions, such as doling out money, for very difficult problems. But an assessment of the Prince from Howard Haywood, director of the Royal Jubilee and Prince's Trusts, also suggests a strong pragmatic streak.
``He is a very practical man not interested in a lot of talking,'' says Mr. Haywood. The Prince has wagged a finger at him in meetings and said `` `Let's reduce the bureaucracy and let's give swift and rapid help.' ''
It may be some time before Prince Charles, who is 37 and said to be itching to play a larger role, becomes king: his parents are both in their 60s. Today the monarchy is extremely popular here, yet at the time of Edward VIII's abdication in the mid-1930s, half the country was willing to consider doing away with it.
Holden says the Queen regards the monarchy as ``a sacred trust,'' and not another job given up on turning 60. Nobody understands that better than Prince Charles. For all his innovative ideas, he has an abiding faith in the continuity and stability of the monarchy.