The Talking Mice of Children's Stories
Over spring break, a friend of mine asked me to keep her pet mouse. I've had plenty of pets over the years, but never a mouse. Although I would hesitate to get my own pet mouse, I really enjoyed taking care of little Theodore. Taking care of this tiny little thing with its soft fur, long whiskers, and curious habits made me recall all the mice of my childhood. No, not the mice in the garage that got caught in the... nevermind. I was reminded of the mice of the imagination, of children's stories. Children's books, movies, cartoons - all seemed filled with mice. And not just any kind of mice: talking mice. I remember Stuart Little and Gus and Reepicheep, all old friends of mine. Talking animals have been an institution in literature for centuries.
Why are there so many talking mice in children's stories? I am not one to question this somewhat odd occurrence, as I in fact loved reading stories of talking animals. But what is it about talking mice that appeals to children? Perhaps it is vulnerability. Perhaps children, who are often unable to clearly express themselves, find similarities between themselves and these tiny animals. Perhaps these fictional mice and their ability to talk represent something to children, something like hope.
Some of the oldest stories containing talking animals are recorded in Aesop's Fables. Aesop was a Greek slave who lived in the 600s and 500s BC. His moral stories have been read and loved for milleniums.
Aesop the Greek
The fable of "The Mouse and the Bull" tells the story of a bull (who does not talk) who is chasing a mouse because said mouse (who does talk) has bitten him in the nose. The mouse outwits the bull by escaping through a hole in the wall. The speechless bull can do nothing but listen to the mouse who squeeks in "a shrill little voice": "You big fellows don't always have it your own way. You see, sometimes we little ones come off best." Thus, the moral: "The battle is not always to the strong."
In the fable "The Lion and the Mouse," the talking mouse almost gets eaten by a lion. The lion sets the mouse free after the mouse promises to return the favor someday. Someday comes, and the lion, having gotten trapped in a net, is rescued by the mouse who chews through the ropes. The mouse, in triumph, says that "even a mouse can help a lion."
The story of "The Cat and the Mice" details how a cat is in the habit of eating all of the talking mice in a house. When the mice hide in their holes to keep from being eaten, the cat tries to deceive the mice into thinking that it is dead. But the mice are far to smart for that and stay in their holes. "If you are wise you won't be deceived by the innocent airs of those whom you have once found to be dangerous."
These talking mice in Aesop's fables, when compared to animals that are supposedly stronger, bigger, and smarter than they are, exhibit great ingenuity, cunning, and also kindness.
The Brothers Grimm
Grimm's Fairy Tales
Before the invention of the printing press, stories were often told by word of mouth. Folk tales were filled with magic and talking animals. In the early 1800s, the Brothers Grimm collected many fairy tales and folk tales and published them. These stories often contain talking animals.
"The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership" as told by the Brothers Grimm, is a humorous yet tragic story. The tale centers on a cat and a mouse who decide to live together. The cat is the mischievous one is this story, and he deceives the mouse who is easily led. After eating all of the food (actually fat) that they have stored for the winter, the mouse finally realizes the cat has been deceitful all along. But it is too late for her, as the cat eats up the mouse. "And that is the way of the world," we are told. Here, the mouse is good, but she is easily deceived and made the victim of a cruel world.
Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll's masterpiece Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a beautiful children's book whose beloved characters and nonsensical plot have been the source of much enjoyment to many over the years. The book is full of many strange talking animals, two of whom are mice.
The First Mouse
The first talking mouse that we come across is the Mouse in the Pool of Tears. Alice, afraid of drowning in her own tears - which would be "a queer thing, to be sure!" - calls out to a mouse who is also swimming in the pool, assuming that it can talk. Of course, it can talk, and although it gets frightened by Alice's talking of cats and dogs, it leads her to dry land. There, in the presence of the other talking animals that have gotten caught in the flood, the Mouse proceeds to try to "dry" them all off with a boring history lesson. This doesn't work, however, and in the end the Mouse leaves due to Alice's "insulting" remarks. The Mouse in the pool is considered somewhat of a leader of the animals, yet it is very easily offended and given to a bit of temper.
Tim Burton's version of the Dormouse
The second talking mouse to be introduced is the Dormouse of the Mad Tea-Party. So yes, it is not a true mouse, but still... The Dormouse is first seen sleeping and being used as an elbow-cushion by the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. It is a rather narcoleptic dormouse, and very susceptible to the pranks and pinches of its companions, the Hare and the Hatter. Half-asleep, the Dormouse proceeds to tell Alice a story about three sisters who live in a treacle well. Alice interrupts often, and the Dormouse is rather annoyed. Alice leaves as the Mad Hatter and Hare are stuffing the Dormouse into a teapot. The Dormouse is sleepy, susceptible, and rather stupid.
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Beatrix Potter is one of the most beloved of authors who have written about talking animals. Her great love for little animals is made apparent in her many children's books, from Peter Rabbit to Mrs. Tiggywinkle.
Beatrix Potter's book The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904) was one of my favorite stories as a child. It is about Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, two mice who become very curious about an abandoned doll house. They sneak into the house, try to eat the imitation food, and become upset when they realize the disadvantages of the dollhouse. They proceed to ransack the house. The dolls return to discover that some of their things have been stolen. But lest you think that these mice are very bad, Beatrix lets us know that they indeed repay all that they stole. These talking mice are mischievous, yes, but they are also repentant.
The Tailor of Gloucester (1903) is a lovely Christmas story, and as everyone knows, animals can talk the night before Christmas. The mice in this story only sing, however. When the old, poor tailor saves the town mice from his hungry cat inadvertantly, the mice are ready to help him out in return. The tailor becomes ill and unable to finish sewing a coat for the mayor. The mice secretly work on the coat, making it exceedingly beautiful with their neat little stitches. Through their kindness, the cat (who had been acting naughty) learns to be good, and the tailor becomes a rich man after the sale of his coat. These mice have it all: singing voices, kind hearts, and efficient little paws.
Mickey Mouse is probably the most popular talking mouse of all time. Ever since his inception in 1928, Mickey Mouse has lived in the hearts of children and adults alike. He has become a symbol of Walt Disney and has traveled the world as a representative. Mickey's first gig was Steamboat Willie in 1928. Although he knew how to whistle in 1928, it wasn't until the next year that Mickey first started to speak, with his first words being "hot dogs." Mickey Mouse has grown up over the years. He now sports red shorts, white gloves, and pupiled eyes.
Mickey Mouse Then
Mickey Mouse Now
Timothy Q. Mouse
Timothy Q. Mouse appears in the Disney cartoon Dumbo (1941). Timothy wears a red jacket and hat and possesses an idiosyncratic voice. He can scare off all the gossipy elephants at the circus if he wants to, and his self-confidence shines. Timothy makes an unlikely friend of Dumbo, a lonely elephant whose "crime" is possession of extremely large ears. But Timothy embraces his friend's uniqueness and helps him show the circus his capabilities.
In 1945, E.B. White published the children's book Stuart Little. A film version of the book was made in 1999, though the new movie is different from the book. Movie-version Stuart is a white talking mouse with beady black eyes. He gets adopted by the Little family who live in a very little house. Stuart wears clothes and tries to fit in with his human family. They in return reach out to this new addition to the family, despite all the difficulties that come with having a mouse for a son and brother.
Gus and Jaq
The Disney movie Cinderella retells a classic fairy tale. Although the version of the story told by the Brothers Grimm does not include talking mice, this cartoon does. Gus and Jaq are very lovable and cute and make good friends for lonely Cinderella who is lonely enough to talk to animals. She saves them from mouse traps and makes clothes for them. Jaq is skinny with the smarts. Gus (short for Octavius) is fatter and slower and has a speech impediment. They call their benefactress "Cinderelly" and are her loyal servants for life. These mice are loyal, loving, and thoughtful.
Reepicheep of Narnia
C.S. Lewis created some of the most recognizable talking animals in his series The Chronicles of Narnia. One of his beloved talking animals is Reepicheep the talking mouse. Reepicheep is descended from the kind-hearted mice who chewed away Aslan's bonds back in the days of the Stone Table (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, 1950). He is about two feet tall and wears a sword that he is unafraid to use. Reepicheep is known for his pride and his prized honor. He would do anything for his friends and a right cause. His heart is far bigger than his small size would entail. In Prince Caspian (1951), after losing his tail in battle (which Aslan heals back), Reepicheep is granted knighthood by Caspian. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), Reepicheep returns on King Caspian's adventure on the high seas; he is looking for Aslan's country where no mouse has gone before. Reepicheep is truly "the most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia."
Mrs. Frisby of NIMH
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien was published in 1971. In 1982, Don Bluth took the story and made a cartoon movie, The Secret of NIMH, in which Mrs. Frisby's name was changed to Mrs. Brisby. Mrs. Brisby is a widow whose late husband was subject to the experiments of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) along with his friends the rats. When Mrs. Brisby needs help, she goes to these rats who agree to help her. Meanwhile the highly intelligent rats are working out their own Plan to move away from the humans. Mrs. Brisby is a determined field mouse who would do anything to save her family.
As a kid, one of my favorite cartoons was The Rescuers (1977), as well as its sequel The Rescuers Down Under (1990). The Rescuers is based on books by Margery Sharp. The rescuers are members of the Rescue Aid Society, Miss Bianca the lovely Hungarian and her partner Bernard who is really just a janitor. They are on a mission to save the orphan Penny who has been kidnapped. Bianca and Bernard make an unlikely partnership, but succeed in saving Penny. They continue to work together, saving helpless human children as evidenced in The Rescuers Down Under.
Brian Jacques has written quite a large addition to the world of talking animals in his Redwall series. Starting in 1986, Jacques has written 21 Redwall books so far. These fun books are full of talking animals and their antics, but the mice have center stage. They are known for their leadership, wisdom, and bravery. Matthias is the hero of the first book Redwall, and he saves his friends using the sword of Martin the Warrior (whose story is told in Mossflower, 1988). Mattimeo is the son of Matthias and Cornflower (Mattimeo, 1989). These mice are very strong characters who overcome the odds.
A Mouse with a Cookie
"If you give a mouse a cookie..." This storybook has become a classic read for many children. The Mouse is a very interesting character. Never satisfied with one thing, he is always asking for something else, leading the little boy of the story around in circles to get him cookies and milk and straws. Of course, we can't help but forgive the little curious mouse, because he is just too cute! This book (1985) by Laura Numeroff inspired more "If You Give a..." books, such as If You Take a Mouse to the Movies and If You Give a Moose a Muffin.
Mice have definitely become a vital part of children's stories, in literature as well as in cartoons and films. We love to root for the little guy. Life is like a mouse fighting against an elephant (or becoming friends with the elephant, as in Dumbo). Next time you hear scampering up in the attic, or see a long tail disappearing around the corner in the garage, think about Mickey; think about Gus Gus; think about Timothy Q. and give your mouse a cookie. But be careful... he might just ask for some milk.
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