Medieval Mouse Literature

Besides mysteries, my other reading this month has been mouse stories with medieval settings: Redwall by Brain Jacques and Mouse Guard by David Peterson. It’s definitely an interesting genre. It’s world-building.You have to develop a whole mouse culture!

Mouse Guard

mouse guard fall

I’ve read the first two full graphic novels. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 and Mouse Guard: Winter 1152. The images are beautiful and evocative. They communicate a lot and I am very thankful because it means the graphic novel does not suffer from clutter. Usually, I don’t like graphic novels because they are so busy and I hardly stand it. One thing that I think Mouse Guard has on Redwall is that the mouse world is perfectly pictured. Everything is in proportion to a mouse.

I’ve also really enjoyed the story which I think improves through the second book. I thought the first story had a few holes. For example, I thought it was odd that an attack that depended on having a stolen axe proceeded without it, although I still enjoyed it. In the second book the story became more intriguing, especially as Lieam emerges as the main character. I also really enjoyed the interaction with other creatures – weasels (in abstentia), bats, hares, and owls. I am excited to read the next installment, Mouse Guard: The Black Axe.

Here is a trailer for Mouse Guard

Redwall

redwall

It took me some time to get into Redwall but in the end I found it very satisfying. My initial problem was the incongruent pictures the story created in my head. I am a very visual reader, I picture everything I read and I notice if something doesn’t seem in the right place or does something that seems impossible in the space. And here was the problem with Redwall – I couldn’t figure out if it was a mouse-sized or human sized abbey! There is certainly no mention of humans and how could mice build an abbey of human proportions? However, the rats climb trees to try to get over the walls – so the walls are as tall as trees? Are these people sized animals or are the animals regular sized and everything else much smaller? I kept coming up against problems like this, so it was not a seemless reading experience. (How can a cat and owl walk paw in wing? Is the cat walking on its hind legs?) In the end, I abandoned trying to figure it out how this world actually worked. I still don’t know.

However, I still really liked RedwallI don’t know if I will continue on with the series because I like this story as a stand alone but it was a good adventure. I liked the characters and I like the progression of the plot. I particularly enjoyed seeing Cluny the Scourge thwarted. I liked the dialects and accents. I like the anthropomorphication (is that a word?) of sparrows and shrews and foxes and other animals. It was lively and rich. It certainly kept the animal in the animal kingdom – while not as graphic (pun intended) as Mouse Guard it still had it’s fair share of injury and death. I can certainly see boys especially enjoying both these series, although females are equally represented in the characters in both. 

It looks like Redwall has been made into an animated series – this might help solve my problems… or not. Here is part one of episode one. Just from the first few minutes, they seem to have changed the story slightly. I like it though. 

Medieval Mouse Literature Themes

It’s interesting how the mouse often equates to a child in literature. The mouse is small and vulnerable; it must face dislike of others; and in its own way cute and somewhat civilized; it does sometimes live in houses. Other animals are more savage by comparison. And in these stories, the young reader (the intended audience) clearly is meant to identify with the young  mouse protaganists. Who wouldn’t want to be a mouse-warrior, learning about bravery and what it truly means, facing snakes and other enemies, coming of age, developing the wisdom of how to use their skills, going out on their own, leading others. Maybe the representation of mice in literature could be a topic for discussion sometime?  

Other books with mice (although most are not medieval):

  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien
  • Stuart Little, E. B. White
  • The Tale of Desperaux, Kate DiCamillo
  • The Dark Portal, Robin Jarvis
  • Poppy, Avi
  • Mouse with a Question Mark Tail and Secrets at Sea, Richard Peck
  • The Church Mouse, Graham Oakley
  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter
  • A Cricket in Times Square, Robert Selden
  • The Rescuers, Margery Sharpe
  • The Mouse Wife, Rumer Godden
  • The Mouse and His Child, Russell Hoban
  • Doctor DeSoto and Abel’s Island and The Real Thief, William Steig
  • Bless This Mouse, Lois Lowry
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beverly Clearly
  • The Cheshire Cheese Cat, Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
  • The Witches, Roald Dahl
  • Basil of Baker Street, Eve Titus

And that’s enough to be going on with.

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The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

Existentialism for children. But don’t let that turn you off. This is a fabulous children’s story.

The Mouse and His Child is like a modern day fairy tale or quest. The title characters are a wind up toy (and no that is not a grammatical error – Mom – together they are a single toy, attached together). The father and son hold hands and dance around in a circle. That’s what they do until the day they are broken. That’s when their adventures begin. The epigraph at the beginning gives a clue to the nature of the story:

The sense of danger must not disappear:/ The way is certainly both short and steep,/ However gradual it looks from here;/ Look if you like but you will have to leap.  ~ W. H. Auden

This world, interestingly, contains animals both real and not. It’s not for the faint of heart! The mouse and his child set out in a world full of adversity. There is violence in the form of junkyard warlord Manny Rat and shrew wars over territory and natural and animal-made disasters and predators. But the challenges only make the story more beautiful. It is funny and wry and hopeful and redemptive. It is a story about the love between a father and son, a sharp-witted comedy, and a stirring adventure. The book is able to speak to the reader on so many levels.

You will like The Mouse and His Child if you enjoy stories about toys coming to life or mice talking. However, you will also like it if you enjoy stories about  journeys and finding home.

mice

I first read The Mouse and His Child as part of a Children’s Literature course in university. I just fell in love with it. I was astounded this book was not better known; that I hadn’t heard of it before. Later I found the same copy (2001) I had read then in a book store and, of course, bought it. It is illustrated by David Small and the illustrations are… perfect. He won the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators for his work. Apparently, it was made into an animated film in the 70s. I tried to watch it but there was so much crazy-saxophone background music, I could hardly focus on what was going on. I really feel like book deserved another kick at the can. l was thinking it would work on stage and low and behold, I discovered that the story was recently adapted for the stage by Royal Shakespeare Company. They read my mind.

Let me know what you think:

The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle of the Ninth, otherwise known as The Sparrow of the Sixth.

This is a very well known book (but perhaps not as much by its second title). Many people will not require an introduction. For me, it was a book I intended to read for quite awhile and I was glad when I finally did.

Rosemary Sutcliff knows her Roman Britain. She is something of an authority on it. Here, she imagines a story around a true event, the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion. A Roman, Marcus, and his slave, Esca, together undertake to retrieve the eagle, the legion standard, from deep within hostile territory. I like this book for its history and adventure – the stealth and final race across the countryside – but also for the relationship between master and slave that develops throughout the book. Although Marcus and Esca are in many ways natural enemies, they are also men in need of one another.

I read the book as an adult. The intended audience is older children, teens. Although it’s probably out of vogue now (which is too bad because it would probably suit a lot of boys), I’m sure its been studied by many, many school children, as my copy would suggest.  It belonged to Carol Lovell of 9C. (Thank you, Carol, if you are reading.) It’s got study notes and questions in the back, and graffiti on the cover, like this helpful advice: “For best results, Open book before reading.”

I picked this book up because I wanted to own a copy and it looked in need of a home. I must I have a thing for waifs and strays of the literary variety (I notice this has already becoming a recurring theme in this blog) and I certainly have a soft spot for old school texts. They been through some many hands. Maybe the book had a lasting impact on the readers or maybe it was just an opportunity to deface school property and pass a message on to the next person, but it feels like a connection to the past. I know the kids who were sitting in those desks.