What is it about mice? - she demanded rhetorically. Why do some of my favorite books from childhood hinge on the hero quests and passions of mice, for all love? More to the point, why is it that some of the books that really turned me into a reader - books that challenged me to grapple with complex (I may even say, huge) emotions and ideas - and subsequently invite multiple rereads into adulthood - feature mousy protagonists?
I could not say for sure; but being me I can't bear to be without a theory, and my theory (thank you, Miss Anne Elk) is this: that the world looks even bigger to a mouse than to a child. And thus a mouse is a hero/ine that makes perfect sense for a child to identify with: like the child, a mouse may appear small and weak in the eyes of a huge outside world; but unlike the child, gets to be a fully autonomous being in that huge world. The mice interact with the natural world, and both human and nonhuman societies; and, being at the mercy of them all, must depend on their wits to learn the ways of the world and survive. A child gets to experience a vicariously adult world, and both its perils and its wonders are amplified thanks to the agency of a hero/ine no bigger than his or her own hand.
I have no idea how much of this is hooey - or not. All this speculatin' may just be my way of justifying my love for The Rescuers, by Margery Sharp, a book I first encountered when I was about ten. The provenance of the particular copy that introduced me to the world of Miss Bianca, Nils, and Bernard is lost to me: I rather fancy it was one of many, many finds fossacked from the huge yearly book sale that was the highlight of my school fair (for my family, at least, it was just as thrilling as the Ferris wheel). Whether I picked it out myself or my mother picked it out for me, I couldn't now tell you: all I do remember is that when I opened that slender volume of prose, tastefully bound in light blue cloth, and amply, wonderfully illustrated by the inimitable Garth Williams I knew I had entered a wide, wide new world. Follow me over the golden fleecie for more.
The world looks very big - to a mouse:
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried Madam Chairwoman Mouse, "we now come to the most important item on our autumn program! Pray silence for the Secretary!"And with that, we are away. Madam Chairwoman of the Prisoners' Aid Society (mission: to cheer up prisoners by visiting them in their cells) yields the floor (according to rule) to the aged Secretary, but not for long: when it comes to the issue of the Norwegian poet imprisoned in the Black Castle, she cannot keep still. First, she astounds the company by actually interrupting the Secretary, then she lobs an extra bombshell: they may not be able to cheer this particular prisoner, given the peculiar bleakness of the Black Castle, but they may be able to get him out.
All they need to do, adds Madam Chairwoman, is find the bravest mouse in Norway. And for that, they need Miss Bianca.
Right away, from the perspective of a ten-year-old growing up in a particularly provincial suburb of Detroit, we are in deep waters: first of all, where in the world are we? The mice themselves sound teddibly British, but the Black Castle - with its impenetrable rock walls cut into cliffs soaring over a raging river, supposedly somewhere in their country - sounds positively Transylvanian. And where was Norway, I wondered? And for that matter, where was Transylvania? The only Sylvania I could locate with any confidence on a map was Penn's. I consulted the atlas, suddenly impatient with the state of my knowledge of the world; but after a concentrated spurt of reference work I gave up and simply allowed the story to have its way with me, accepting that there were things I just wasn't going to get yet. Like this exchange:
"If he's a poet, why's he in jail?" demanded a suspicious voice.I found that humorous, even tho' I had no clue what it meant (and neither did the mice of the Prisoners' Aid Society, apparently, for the "stir of approval" that meets these words has its roots in this: "Mice are all for people being free" - so that they themselves can be freed from the task of cheering prisoners). What I am sure of, tho', is that when I finally did find out what "free verse" meant, my mind darted back to Madam Chairwoman, and I laughed out loud.
Madam Chairwoman shrugged velvet shoulders.
"Perhaps he writes free verse," she suggested cunningly.
None But the Brave Deserve the Fair, or, Enter Bernard...
Everyone knew who Miss Bianca was, but none had ever seen her.Miss Bianca, the distant fair...on her way in two days' time, with the Ambassador and the Boy, to Norway! Madam Chairwoman calls for a volunteer to meet with Miss Bianca and enlist her aid in seeking the aforementioned Bravest Mouse in Norway, who is to go to the aid of the Norwegian poet. And thus we are introduced to Bernard:
What was known was that she was a white mouse belonging to the Ambassador's son, and lived in the schoolroom at the Embassy. Apart from that, there were the most fantastic rumors about her: for instance, that she lived in a Porcelain Pagoda; that she fed exclusively on cream cheese from a silver bonbon dish; that she wore a silver chain around her neck, and on Sundays a gold one. She was also said to be extremely beautiful, but affected to the last degree.
For a moment, all waited; then there was a slight scuffling at the back as though someone who didn't want to was being urged by his friends to step forward, and finally a short, sturdy young mouse tramped up towards the platform.Bernard the pantry mouse, looking "rough but decent," is the man...mouse...for the job, altho' his shyness, his youth, and inexperience of any part of the Embassy but its pantries make him doubt his own abilities. Despite these handicaps, however, Bernard has a number of things going for him; his courage, for one, as proved by his battle decoration, the Tybalt Star (you Shakespeare fans should enjoy that one):
"For Gallantry in Face of Cats," nodded Madam Chairwoman. "I believe I remember the incident...A cat nipped on the tail, was it not, thus permitting a nursing mother of six to regain her hole?"Behold here the humility that is another of Bernard's great strengths. Resourcefulness, practicality, and presence of mind he has in abundance as well, as will be demonstrated later. Last, and greatest, of the qualities that will make Bernard a hero is that, beneath the rough fur that almost hides the Tybalt Star upon his chest, beats the heart of a true knight errant. All that is required to turn our prosaic pantry mouse into a shot-sized flower of chivalry is a lady whose qualities inspire him to flights of heroism. Not, this time, his sister-in-law...but a lady in a porcelain pagoda, covered with bells and flowers.
"She was my sister-in-law," muttered Bernard, flushing.
"Miss Bianca!" he called softly..."Don't be afraid, Miss Bianca!...I'm not burglars, I am Bernard from the Pantry with a most important message."All For Love, or the World Well Lost: Enter Miss Bianca
He waited again. One of the golden bells, as though a moth had flown past, tinkled faintly. Then again there was a rustling, and at last Miss Bianca came out.
But her chief point of beauty was her eyes. The eyes of most white mice are pink; Miss Bianca's were deep brown. In conjunction with her snowy head, they gave her the appearance of a powdered beauty of the court of Louis the Fifteenth.Bernard is struck not only by Miss Bianca's beauty, but by her social graces, which serve to reduce the considerable awkwardness he feels in crashing her scene with a mission that seems more and more impossible the longer they converse. It's not just that he can't imagine her "doing anything more strenuous than swinging on a gilt swing," it's that he feels the true, appalling weight of the difference of their worlds when Miss Bianca reveals to him that she, unlike Bernard, is actually not afraid of cats. The thought of sending this particular innocent abroad with this particular handicap fairly staggers him.
And yet...when Miss Bianca reveals that she, like the Norwegian prisoner, is a poet, he can't help himself: out pours the quest, and her part in it.
It doesn't go well: Miss Bianca first faints dead away, and then, on coming to, refuses to hear any more. And this is when Bernard and Miss Bianca first reveal to us, as they do to each other, the romantic heroism at the heart of their true natures:
"Dear, dearest Miss Bianca," said Bernard fervently, "if I could take your place, do you think I wouldn't? To spare you the least inconvenience, I'd walk into cat-baskets! But I can't travel by Diplomatic Bag, I can't get to Norway in twenty-four hours. Nor can anyone else. You, and you alone, can be this poor chap's savior...I tell you my blood boils when I think of it -"Let's leave aside, for the moment, the troublesome gender politics that lie at the heart of the chivalric ideal, and let me say this: what made this a life-changing book for me is that this exchange, between two comical little mice, impressed upon me forcibly for the first time I can recall that love, real love, wants us to do brave things, be better people, make a better world, for the sake of the beloved if for no other reason. And that it's OK to have no other reason.
"Why?" whispered Miss Bianca. "Why does your blood boil?"
"Because you're so beautiful!" cried Bernard recklessly. "It's not fair to ask you to be brave as well! You should be protected and cherished and loved and honored, and I for my part ask nothing better than to lie down and let you walk on me!"
Miss Bianca rested her head lightly against his shoulder.
"You give me such a good opinion of myself," she said softly, "perhaps I could be brave as well..."
By accepting the mission to Norway, Miss Bianca steps resolutely off the pedestal of static Beauty that Bernard - indeed, her whole world - has offered her as reason enough for for her being. She chooses to become a heroine.
Pretty heady stuff for a little book about mice. But wait, there's more!
Hearts of (Norwegian) Oak: Enter Nils
She was simply to seek out the bravest mouse in Norway! Without the slightest idea where he was to be found - or indeed where any mice were to be found! For Miss Bianca's life had been so remarkably sheltered, she really didn't know anything about how other mice lived.
Miss Bianca finds herself in something of the same situation as Bernard when she goes out on her quest, with some added disadvantages: she doesn't know whom she seeks, and she doesn't know where to find him. Thinking of Bernard, she decides to head to the pantries, but she ends up in the Embassy cellars instead; where, to her initial dismay, she interrupts what appears to be a mouse version of a stag party. Misfortune, however, turns to good when she asks one of the piratical-looking partiers to find her a volunteer for the mission:
The Petty Officer simply reached out a hand and clapped it on the nearest shoulder - only then turning around to see whom he'd got.Simple as that, Miss Bianca has her mouse, and is now faced with the prospect of getting him back to the Prisoners' Aid Society. Since Nils is a seafarer, his immediate impulse is to take ship, and he asks Miss Bianca to draw him a chart. This task, however, Miss Bianca finds exasperatingly difficult, until Nils makes a suggestion:
"You, Nils!" he snapped. "You a volunteer?"
"Aye, aye, sir," said Nils.
"Hadn't you best start with the points of the compass, ma'am?"This passage tickles my funny bone for so many reasons, but primarily because it always comes to mind when I recall the wise words of my old friend Brian: "Always have a plan. Because even a bad plan is better than no plan!"
"You put them in," she said, turning the paper over. Nils took the chalk and marked top and bottom, then each side, with an N, an S, an E, and a W. Then he gave the chalk back, and Miss Bianca again put a dot in the middle for the Moot-house - and again, out of sheer nervousness, drew a lady's hat round it. (The garden-party sort, with a wide brim and a wreath of roses). Nils studied it respectfully.
"That I'd call clear as daylight," he said. "You should ha' set your compass points first."
Miss Bianca's sense of noblesse oblige, however - to say nothing of her desire to see Bernard again - will not allow her to send Nils off with nothing more than a drawing of a lady's party hat for a map, however clearly marked its compass points may be. She decides she must accompany him herself. The return voyage by tramp steamer, however, is nothing like the outgoing plane trip in the diplomatic pouch, and Miss Bianca, between bouts of seasickness, experiences what can only be described as a profound class/culture shock:
"How the poor live!" cried Miss Bianca uncontrollably. "It's quite dreadful to think of!"Poor Miss Bianca! Torn between love of Bernard and love of her pink satin sheets! No wonder she is a very thoughtful mouse by the time they reach the Capital.
"Is it? Myself, I don't know any poor," said Nils. He paused, and looked at her kindly. "Except, maybe," he added, "for one poor little female that hadn't got any galoshes..."
The Luck of the Mice
Warning: Here be spoilers from here out
"The luck of the mice" is a phrase that recurs throughout the story - as in "and may the luck of the mice be with you!" - and serves as a sort of shorthand for a type of stupendous, fortunate coincidence that propels the little team of rescuers forward, despite their own confusion, lack of faith in their abilities, and the sheer overwhelmingness of the odds against them. By the luck of the mice, Miss Bianca looks down instead of up at a critical moment when they've landed, only to see the Boy's toy speedboat waiting for them, as tho' by appointment, at the foot of the quay. By the luck of the mice, Nils manages to navigate his way to the Capital with a sketch of a garden party hat as his guide (which he calls "the clearest chart I've ever steered by"; Miss Bianca doesn't dare to tell him what a flimsy reed he is leaning on so confidently). By the luck of the mice, Nils and Miss Bianca make it back just in time for the rescuers to be able to catch the only provisioning wagon train going to the Black Castle for the year. And by the luck of the mice the three rescuers - for of course, it is Bernard, for love of Miss Bianca's fine eyes, and Miss Bianca herself, who volunteer to accompany Nils to the Black Castle - find themselves in the only room in the Castle that is not bare rock, and thus find the only mouse hole in the only wainscoting in the entire place.
Of course, it is not all luck. It is Nils's advice, for instance, that enables them to find the mouse hole: "Wait, then follow the best boots" - which turn out to belong to the Head Jailer. And sometimes their luck seems to turn malignant: for the Head Jailer keeps a cat - "twice natural size, and four times as fierce" - and, of course, his quarters are where Mamelouk, the cat, is most certain to show up unexpectedly. And sometimes the luck seems to see-saw between "good" and "bad". The very objects that surround them, in their facilitation of "luck", seem to embody the old Buddhist saw, "neither good nor bad - only time will tell." The Head Jailer's nasty cigar butts, for example, which he leaves strewn around the floor, and which make Miss Bianca feel ill, turn out to be quite effective in masking mouse scent. The river, which ultimately enables them to reach their prisoner, also almost kills them. But it is this concept of "the luck of the mice" that keeps the three going when they are most tempted to despair.
Did I call "the luck of the mice" a shorthand for coincidence? You can also call it a shorthand for faith.
Art (and Friendship) Can Save Your Life
The final lesson that I learned from The Rescuers was this: that art - artfulness - can save your sanity, and sometimes even your life. At the moment when things look blackest, Miss Bianca writes a poem, which is described thus:
...this was the most depressing poem she ever wrote, but even at the time, because it so exactly expressed her feelings, she was rather cheered up by it. Poets have uncommon advantages...This notion that writing something sad might make me feel better in bad times - because of the triumph involved in "exactly expressing my feelings" - made a profound impression on me. Miss Bianca writes her depressing poem just after she, Bernard, and Nils have reached their lowest ebb, and Bernard cheers them by reminding them of the luck of the mice:
Nils reached across and grasped him by the hand; Miss Bianca slipped hers into the other. Whate'er befell, they were three united, loyal companions. At the moment, it was their only consolation.
The Norwegian poet, when they finally reach him, chooses to believe that they are there to help him escape, rather than that they are delusions brought on by his solitary confinement, because "it is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural." (another way of describing Bertolt Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt").
Likewise, that the beautiful melancholy inherent in the ending of "The Rescuers" - after Nils has left, and Miss Bianca realizes she must go back to the Boy, and leave Bernard - could be as satisfying emotionally as the hokiest "happy end":
But they none of them ever forgot each other, or their famous adventures in the Black Castle.
(Of course, they do all end up meeting up again - Margery Sharp wrote eight sequels to this story. But the point being, sometimes the "sad ending" trumps "the happy ending" when it comes to emotional correctness.)
Note: all quotations taken from The New York Review Children's Collection edition of The Rescuers, published by the New York Review of Books. Copyright 1959 by Margery Sharp and Garth Williams
Note, too: The observant reader will have noticed the name of my nom de plume and the name of the heroine of this story are the same. Alas, all I can say is that any resemblance between me and the real Miss Bianca are (almost) purely coincidental, and almost entirely wishful thinking on my part. We both have brown eyes, and we both write poetry. Hers is much better than mine.
Sat Dec 14, 2013 at 8:44 AM PT: 12/14 - thank you all for the kind words, and for excusing my clumsiness in trying to follow posting protocol! And for the Community Spotlight posting, my word! I promise, I will do better next time!