Rodents in children’s literature: The power of the ‘undermouse’

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Deep in the heart of Mossflower country, nestled between the emerald woods and the sprawling meadowland, stands an ancient abbey. It was built from red standstone by the first mice centuries ago, and even now, with the fiery red cloak of ivy draped over its south face, it burns as brightly as it did back in those distant days so dusted by memory. Today, with the Summer of the Late Rose just beginning, the page has opened at a new chapter. Father Abbott Mortimer’s words to Matthias, the bumbling, ebullient novice mouse, were supposed to be kindly dismissive. “Poor Matthias, alas for your ambitions. The day of the warrior is gone, my son,” he says in those opening few pages. But he could not possibly have been more wrong. For this is the world of Redwall.

Redwall. It’s funny how a single word rooted so deep in your childhood can be so charged with meaning. Say this particular word to me and my imagination explodes with images of cloaked mice, the clash of swords, flagons of white gooseberry wine, raspberry cordial, peach and elderberry brandy, candied chestnuts, riddles, badger lords, a fearsome rodent army led by a one-eyed rat covered in grey and pink scars, candlelit caverns filled with dancing woodland creatures, and above all, Martin the Warrior.

Martin the WarriorBrian Jacques began his enchanting series in 1986 and subsequently published twenty-two books set in the Redwall universe, the final one released three months after his death in 2011. Often described as one of the greatest children’s authors of all time, he wrote his first animal story aged ten at school about a bird that cleaned a crocodile’s teeth. His teacher was so convinced that he must have copied it from somewhere, deciding that no ten-year-old could possibly have written such a thing, that she caned him. Jacques left school five years later to become a merchant sailor in search of adventure, and eventually wrote his first Redwall tales for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind while working as a milkman. They quickly spread across the globe like wildfire, fuelling the imaginations of millions.

I think nostalgia is underrated. That bewitching rush of affection tinged with sadness for a moment buried in your past. I get it most intensely while reading novels I adored as a child. Re-reading has that unique synesthetic effect of evoking the places, feelings, sights, smells and sounds you experienced while first reading the story, be it the crash of waves, rumble of the Underground, smell of evening barbecues, feelings of loneliness, jubilation, or the warmth of a family home. And there is something so magical about anthropomorphic literature in particular, from singing bears to scheming tigers. It ignites that most romantic corner of our imaginations.

But what is it about rodents?

Well, even the word ‘rodent’ is charged with the negative connotations of disease-carrying creatures scurrying through pipes and sewers, evoking images of pinpricks of light in dark corners and the eerie rustling of woodland undergrowth. Woven through their web of associations are traits of timidity, disloyalty, untrustworthiness, and cowardice, along with words like ‘infection’, ‘vermin’, and ‘plague’, not to mention the fact that ‘rodent’ is actually an adjective meaning ‘corrosive’.

One would think that with such damning qualities they would be doomed to malevolence and antagonism. But everything changes when they are given human traits. As soon as a mouse is invested with the powers of speech, reason, and free will, his or her true nature is revealed to spectacular effect.

Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior is a heroic woodland mouse who becomes a Redwall legend, the legend of legends. The son of Luke the Warrior, he sets out with his father’s magical sword to avenge his mother, who was murdered by the wicked stoat pirate Vilu Daskar. His adventures include being enslaved by the tyrannical stoat Badrang as well as battling Verdauga, the wildcat king of Mossflower. He is first described by the novice Matthias generations later. Matthias walks with Father Abbot through the Great Hall of the Abbey right at the beginning of the very first book and stops to gaze up in awe at a magnificent tapestry, ‘the pride and joy of Redwall’, woven by its founders. Upon this tapestry is an armoured mouse ‘with a fearless smile’, leaning casually on a mighty sword ‘while behind him foxes, wildcats, and vermin fled in terror’. The more you read of their world, the more you will come to realise that the mice of Redwall could not possibly be more heroic.

Perhaps even more famous worldwide are the stories of Beatrix Potter, also filled with rodents who fly in the face of their connotations. From Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry, and Mrs Tittlemouse, to Timmy Tiptoes, Johnny Town-Mouse, and Tom Thumb, they all have their own quirky personalities and grievances, often overcoming many challenges in their respective tales to emerge stronger and happier than ever before. These characters are particularly topical this year given the 28th July will mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. September will also see the publication of her newly-discovered story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, thanks to some detective work undertaken by publisher Jo Hanks, who found a reference to the lost tale in an out-of-print Potter biography.

So what does all this really say about our interpretation of those most diverse and preyed upon members of the animal kingdom?

Perhaps it merely illuminates the sheer intensity of that so fundamentally human adoration of animals and our quixotic propensity to idolise the ‘underdog’, or in this case, ‘undermouse’. More than anything, it shows just how much we want the weakest and most vulnerable to triumph. And nowhere is such an outcome more avidly hoped for than in the mind of a child. It rather restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it?

As George Eliot mused in The Mill on the Floss, ‘we could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it’.

New illustration for The Tale of Kitty in Boots by Quentin Blake

New illustration for ‘The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots’ by Quentin Blake

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