The Princess Pea looked down at Despereaux. She smiled at him. And then the princess reached out and touched the top of the mouse’s head.
Despereaux stared up at her in wonder. The Pea, he decided, looked just like the picture of the fair maiden in the book in the library. The princess smiled at Despereaux again, and this time, Despereaux smiled back. And then something incredible happened: The mouse fell in love.
Reader, you may ask this question; in fact, you must ask this question: Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea?
The answer is… yes. Of course, it’s ridiculous. Love is ridiculous.
But love is also wonderful. And powerful. And Despereaux’s love for the Princess Pea would prove, in time, to be all of these things: powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous.
“My name is Despereaux! I honor you!” said Despereaux. “I honor you” was what the knight said to the fair maiden in the story that Despereaux read every day in the book in the library. Despereaux had muttered the phrase often to himself, but he had never before this evening had occasion to use it when speaking to someone else.
“Despereaux,” she said. He saw his name on her lips.
“I honor you,” whispered Despereaux. “I honor you.” He put his paw over his heart. He bowed so low that his whiskers touched the floor.
He was, alas, a mouse deeply in love.
And then there is Roscuro, the rat dissatisfied with being stuck down in the pitch-black dungeon of the castle. Roscuro longs for the light, and his longing is so fervent that he dares to venture up in to the main hall, despite the disapproval of other rats. This, however, brings to him a rude awakening:
Hanging by one paw, he swung back and forth, admiring the spectacle below him: the smells of the food, the sound of the music, and the light, the light, the light. Amazing. Unbelievable. Roscuro smiled and shook his head.
Unfortunately, a rat can hang from a chandelier for only so long before he is discovered. This would be true at even the loudest party.
Reader, do you know who it was that spotted him?
You’re right. The sharp-eyed Princess Pea.
“A rat!” she shouted. “A rat is hanging from the chandelier!”
The party, as I have noted, was loud. The minstrels were strumming and singing. The people were laughing and eating. The man with the jingle cap was juggling and jingling. No one, in the midst of all this merriment, heard the Pea. No one except for Roscuro.
He had never before been aware of what an ugly word it was.
In the middle of all that beauty, it immediately became clear that it was an extremely distasteful syllable.
A curse, an insult, a word totally without light. And not until he heard it from the mouth of the princess did Roscuro realize that he did not like being a rat, that he did not want to be a rat. This revelation hit Roscuro with such force, that it made him lose his grip on the chandelier…
And because, as the narrator particularly emphasizes in this tale, every action always has consequences, the Princess’s rejection of Roscuro and his resulting tumble from the chandelier set in motion several painful things. Without giving too much of the plot away, let us just say that Roscuro’s heart is broken and he becomes convinced that if he allowed to remain up in the castle, enjoying the light, then he will take revenge on the Princess Pea.
But he cannot take his revenge on the princess without the abused and dull-witted Miggery Sow.
And he cannot succeed with his revenge as long as there is a tiny mouse who seeks to honor and defend the princess with his very life.
I absolutely love The Tale of Despereaux, and similar to my review of The Little Prince, I am struggling to express just how important the tone and the phrasing of the language itself is to the story overall without simply including passages from the novel. There is something about the rhythm of di Camillo’s prose, her combination of wisdom and what I will call storybook meta-humor (a humorous awareness and acknowledgement of storybook conventions) that draws me into the novel each time I re-read it. The story itself seems deceptively simple: a mouse loves a princess, a rat wants revenge on the same princess, the rat manipulates a poor peasant girl to kidnap the princess and then the mouse must go down into the dungeon to save her. Yet the way that di Camillo turns her phrases is both beautiful and shrewd.
And I not only love di Camillo’s prose – I also love the complexity that di Camillo builds through the narrator’s commentary, defining and building empathy for both Roscuro, the princess’s revenge-bent captor, and Miggery Sow, the kidnapper’s accomplice. Di Camillo uses one of the stereotypical character types of children’s literature – the orphaned/abandoned child. Everyone from Charles Dickens to J.K. Rowling has written a Cinderella story, where the discarded and rejected child suffers great loneliness and physical hardship. But because two major aims of Children’s Literature is comfort the child reader and empower him or her, so that each reader feels capable of independently handling the challenges of the adult world, most Cinderella stories have happy endings. In her tale, however, di Camillo acknowledges that for Miggery Sow, there is no possibility of fulfilling her dream to become a princess. She is not a pure-hearted young princess-in-disguise, and her happily-ever-after is limited by the constraints of reality. Despite the whimsical storybook tone of the prose, it is through this and other elements of the story that di Camillo introduces more complex concepts like empathy and darkness that resides in everyone’s heart – even the heart of the Princess Pea.
I cannot stress how much I appreciate Children’s Literature that addresses the complexity of the human heart and the reality of evil, especially when the author manages to convey these difficult truths while still keeping a sense of beauty, wonder and wit. I see this complexity in the writing of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling – and it is this quality that I likewise love in The Tale of Despereaux. I highly recommend this novel for all ages – because we should never be too young or too old to learn about the complexity of the human heart from a love story about a princess and a mouse.