Discussion: Light vs. Dark Trend in Fantasy Literature

It seems to me that a common trend throughout Science Fiction and Fantasy literature is the war between the Light and the Dark, or  Good vs. Evil. No matter what world the story takes place in, or what species or race the characters are, the discussion of good and bad is something that is constantly stressed in stories in our society. It has been for as long as we’ve had stories: religious parables and myths, fairy tales, today’s science fiction all share this theme. It comes as no surprise to me that it would also be prevalent in fiction for middle grade readers. The idea of there being good in the world as well as evil is a lesson we’ve been trying to teach to our youth throughout history. A warning, almost, to try and make sure that we instill morals in our children so that they can be positive contributors to our societies.

The Tale of Despereaux delivers this same message, this time using mice and rats and the physical difference of light and darkness. In the world that DiCamillo has created, mice are creatures of the world of the light and are only sent to the dungeon (a world of complete darkness) when they are being exiled from their own society. They are sent there to die a terrible death by the hand of the rats, who are creatures of that darkness and despised by humans as creatures of disease and ugliness and death. It was, in fact, a rat who had unintentionally caused the death of the humans’ queen, who was frightened to death by the accidental appearance of a rat in her soup- a rat who had left the darkness of the dungeon for the light of the world above only to be shunned and sent back to the dark world from which he came. He had wanted to witness beauty and goodness, and leave the evil that the other rats held in their hearts behind, but because of the prejudice of the humans in the castle was forced to go back. While in that darkness, his plan for revenge was conceived and developed and put into action. A plan to steal away the Princess Pea from the world of light and make her remain in the darkness of the dungeon forever as punishment for sending that rat, Chiaroscuro, back to his home and showing him that humans would never accept rats in the world of beauty and light.

But then DiCamillo takes a turn. In the end, she allows the rats to partake of the world of the light. Princess Pea, moved by Despereaux’s devotion and gift of forgiveness, extends a sort of olive branch to the rats inviting them out of the darkness to partake in the beauty and enjoyment of the world of light for a taste of soup. Princess Pea’s invitation serves to showcase the idea that even when people are born in or come from that world of darkness we should still give them the chance to experience light and beauty and good, not shun them from it and ban them to their darkness and sadness and potentially evil ways. This reminds me of countless parables from new testament Christian texts (as well as many other religions’ writings and teachings): ideas of “love your neighbor” and forgiveness and being good to your fellow man. It’s no secret that humans do have an aversion to rats. Throughout history they’ve carried diseases that have been very detrimental to our societies (the plague in medieval times, etc.), and the word itself has quite the negative connotation. But mice can be cute. Especially very tiny ones with giant ears who can read and fall in love with princesses. I think that DiCamillo’s use of mice and rats, two very closely related animals that are thought of very differently, to show prejudice and good vs. evil was interesting and something on a level that children in this age group could latch onto and learn from.

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The Tale of Despereaux

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Author: Kate DiCamillo

Age Range: 7-12 (Kirkus Reviews)

Interest Range: 7-12

Genre: Fantasy

Plot: This is the story of a very tiny mouse who was a disappointment to his family. He was smaller than he should have been, and terrible at everything a mouse should be good at. He was strange, and the other mice did not understand his ways. But Despereaux was special: he could read! And his ability introduced him to the importance of story, and the idea of knights and princesses and duty and honor. So when he finally met a real life princess, it makes perfect sense that he fell in love with the human girl and knew he would do everything it took to honor her. This is also the story of how other people wished to take revenge on the princess, and ultimately how Despereaux was tested to see how far his love for the princess could carry him. Will a tiny little mouse be able to brave the dungeon and ultimately save the princess from her terrible fate?

Review: This book was incredibly sweet. I loved the approach, telling the story from each of the main characters’ points of view  (Despereaux, Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow) and allowing you to see each of their personal pasts before telling you how they all three were wound together. I also enjoyed the sense of humor and repeating tendency to directly address the reader and invite them to make the story more personal (check your dictionary for definitions, relate the story to your own experience, etc.). The main character might be a mouse, but he is very much humanized and I think very easy for children to relate to. It is common to feel like you don’t fit in with your family, to feel different from your own kind and sometimes not realize that those differences are alright (even good), and can be used to your advantage or as strengths. And the emphasis of the importance and value of “story” and “light” is ultimately uplifting and encouraging.

Themes: Being Different, Light vs. Dark, Coming of Age, Prejudice (species, in this case)

Additional Info:

Awards: Newbery Medal Winner in 2004

Adaptations: This book was made into an animated film in 2008.

Main Characters:

Despereaux: A mouse, smaller than normal and very different form all of the other mice in the castle. After letting himself be seen by the King and even be touched by the Princess Pea, Despereaux is turned in by his own brother and father and exiled to the dungeon by the Council of Mice (basically a death sentence). But when meeting the princess, Despereaux fell in love with her and will fight to get back to the light and keep her safe from harm.

Chiaroscuro: A rat, born in darkness but desiring a life filled with light. When he finally gets to experience it, he is shunned and sent back to the darkness where he begins to plot his revenge on the Princess. He is forever obsessed with the brilliance and beauty of the light, and ultimately will try to capture the Princess and teach her a lesson.

Miggery Sow: An unlucky girl who was sold into slavery by her father after her own mother’s death. Miggery is often beaten, to the point of losing her hearing. Unfortunately, she is also not very smart and quite lazy. After seeing the Princess Pea on her seventh birthday, her only wish is to also be a princess.  Instead, she ends up working in the castle and is eventually tricked into helping Chiaroscuro take his revenge on the Princess Pea.

Princess Pea: The Princess of the castle, still dealing with the passing of her mother. Princess Pea is fond of Despereaux and becomes angry with her father for not allowing her to befriend the mouse. She becomes the object of Despereaux’s affection, Miggery Sow’s dreams, and Chiaroscuro’s revenge.

Bibliographic Info:

DiCamillo, K. (2003). The Tale of Despereaux. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

Tagline:

Despereaux is a very different mouse. But often being different just means you’re destined for adventure.