I read The Tale of Despereaux this weekend and thought it an odd reversal of common folk-wisdom. The movie was much better than the book (usually, it’s the other way around).
You may recall that I spoke highly of the movie (in my “Five Great Movies for Kinists” post) noting its glamorization of social hierarchy and a self-conscious renunciation of egalitarianism. The book, instead, promotes egalitarianism, though not as a main theme. Like the movie-version there is still much talk of honor and bravery:
Written by Kate DiCamillo, the novel feels more like a sermon than an action-packed tale of chivalry, complete with requests to look up vocabulary in the dictionary. The movie is chocked full of action, adventure and heroism, none of which are found in the book, where Despereaux never sword-fights rats, never glides on his large ears, never faces off with a house-cat in a rat-arena and never dodges a single mouse-trap. In fact, in the book, he never does much of anything to affect the plot.
Desperaux is a small mouse (with extra-large ears) who, for some inexplicable reason, is unwilling to act as a mouse. He was born with his eyes open and for the rest of his life, never scurries, paces or hides like the other mice. Instead, he is attracted to music, light and all the things of man; things like knighthood, honor and, unfortunately: Princess Pea.
Yes, DiCamillo thought it would be interesting to have Despereaux fall madly in love with a human princess. The movie imagined Despereaux’s relationship with Princess Pea as one of a knight, utterly besotted with his Lady and willing to serve her in whatever way possible.
This sort of dignified servitude is very human. A real and knightly sort of emotion. I imagine the relationship between an old man and a young girl. The old man has a sort of love for the girl — an adoration — but never anything sexual or inappropriate (think of Heidi and Grandfather, or more relevant: the love of a subject for his queen.) The love between the two takes place within legitimate boundaries and is all the more beautiful for it.
But in the novel, Despeareaux really is in love with the princess, as a man would be in love with a woman. This plot-twist, in and of itself, is a display of the radical-egalitarianism that is so popular today. It’s a morbid reversal of the honorable and knightly love I just described.
Furthermore, the King (in the story) displays the characteristic ignorance one expects from white-ruling class folk in Hollywood movies — he despises Despereaux and demands that he not talk to the princess as that would be a violation of social propriety.
Of course, if Despereaux wanted to be a real knight he would have died before dishonoring the princess by talking to her and causing her to violate social propriety. Furthermore, he would have dueled-to-the-death any mouse (or rat) who tried. (Now *that* would be a great story! “You dare speak to the princess you rat? To the KNIFE!!”)
An evil rat named Roscuro (who was much more honorable in the movie) teams up with a forlorn and hard-of-hearing servant-girl named Miggery Sow and kidnaps the princess, locking her in a hidden part of the dungeon that only rats know about. (Again, there was no righteous-anger on Desperaux’s part — were he a real knight, he’d have tried to kill Roscuro simply because the rat put its filthy paws on the Princess!)
Despereaux departs on a quest to save the princess, armed only with a sewing needle, chivarly and a sense of courtly love. He quickly loses his way in the dungeon and is forced to rely on a rat for assistance. When they arrive, Despereaux finds the Princess, Miggery Sow and the rat Roscuro. He pulls out his needle and threatens to kill Roscuro but is stopped by Princess Pea who forgives Roscuro’s sins causing a change of heart in the rat, who leads them all back to the surface where they live happily ever after…though DiCamillo acknowledges that Despereaux and the Princess couldn’t actually get married. (I suppose our society isn’t depraved enough yet to permit it.)
Miggery Sow’s character development was another disappointment. She lusts after Princess Pea’s royal status and in the end, is reunited with her estranged father and treated like a princess for the rest of her life. The movie clearly notes that Miggery Sow is not to be a princess — that’s not her place in life. Instead, she finds true happiness in her station as a servant girl, which implies that all of us, as well, need to strive to be happy in whatever station we find ourselves. In the book, however, Sow’s happiness in her social-class comes almost as an afterthought and is more like the tying up of a loose end than a moral lesson in propriety.
Despite my disappointment, I did like (and enjoy) the book. I’d likely read it to my children (if I ever have any.) I like DiCamillo’s personal style of story-telling and the way she infuses a sort of humility and light-heartedness into all of her characters, even the evil ones. Of course, there are no really evil characters in The Tale of Despereaux. The bad-guys only became bad-guys because of a series of unfortunate circumstances in their lives — a fact that gives DiCamillo’s characters depth and a realistic edge.
The most memorable scene of the book (which sparked a revival of my own knightly-spirit) is when Despereaux is standing at the head of the dungeon steps, about to descend into the darkness. He pauses in a moment of doubt and wonders if there are any happily-ever-afters.
But like a true hero, he swallows his fears for the sake of his lady and a love of the light.
If only there were more Despereauxs in the world…