This month’s book was chosen by Mike and I have to say: despite the “fable fairytale” structure, this is not a children’s book. (Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed it immensely; this was my very favourite type of Pratchett book, where the ideas of folklore and myth get wrapped around and then meta-ed!) My adamant stance on the book, however, led me to wonder why exactly I was so sure.
It’s not that the story was dark; after all, I found Coraline to be incredibly dark and creepy, and that is undeniably a children’s story. The themes were in line with other young adult literature: the importance of personal responsibility when it comes to a power you have over others (Rats vs keekees), as well as in your own life (Malicia). So what made this a grown-up book?
In the end, the only thing I could really think of was that the narrative was split — often the humans or Maurice were off on their own, while the rats got on with their work. While the story as a whole remains cohesive, I can’t think of any children’s books where the “action” gets split up like that, although it’s very common in adult stories. Further, every children’s book I’ve read has a very clear hero — usually whoever is named in the title. Occasionally, as in the Narnia books, there might be a pair. In this book, however, there are many heroes, and all of them go through the growing as characters that we might expect.
So, apparently, I think that what separates children’s lit from grown-up lit is layered complexity of characters. Anyway, with all that classification madness out of the way, questions for the book:
1 – Was the rat king truly “thinking”, or merely a more clever keekee, gifted with words?
This brings me back to a highschool philosophy class when I ferociously disagreed (internally) with the teacher who had stated that higher thought (and thus all that humanity had become today) would not have been possible without language. As a visual person, I was outraged that he could so calmly dismiss the importance of image, colour, feeling and emotion; as if the word “freedom” could mean anything without the feeling behind it. Having since relaxed a little, I get now that he meant that society couldn’t have developed sophisticated thoughts without the ability to “cage” them in words (as Darktan says), in order to share them with others and refine them. (So I guess my teacher was right, but don’t tell him.)
This book, however, puts things the other way: does the ability to put words around your actions imply intelligence? Dangerous Beans points out that at heart, what Spider wants is the life of a rat magnified by size (oh, the power of science!) and focused around a terrible thirst for vengeance (against humans). While certainly breeding the largest, strongest rats together to create “super-rats” speaks of intelligence, does that alone qualify it? Dangerous Beans argues that if we are not stretching beyond ourselves — to be more than “just” what we are — than we are not intelligent. We are just animals.
Spider, on the other hand, has no time to waste with Animal Farm-esque daydreams and societal plans. Its’ driving thought is revenge, lots of it, and a mess of screaming humans. Not much for social betterment, but certainly “more” than what any normal rat would reach for. So… do we qualify such a creature as “intelligent”? I’m not sure.
2 – How much should we rely on myth and fable?
For me, this is a tough one. If it weren’t for Malicia’s conviction that there “was supposed to be” a trapdoor in the shed, the story wouldn’t have gotten far. By the same conviction, however, she constantly looks past Keith’s input, because he does not play the role of someone she should listen to. Further, Malicia’s bizarre ideas about adventure arm her with her well-stocked Bag of Holding (well it might as well be!) and the ability to pick a lock with a hairpin. On the other, it also means that she is unable to see the world as it is; merely as it should be, in a fairytale.
This can probably be tied back to anyone, however — after all, who of us is really seeing the world as it really is? (Damn, too much philosophy? Sorry.)
In any case, the way we see the world will be shaped by the “patterns” we expect, whether those patterns are given to us by news stories, video games, or storybooks. Whereas warnings about not visiting Grandma via the wolf-riddled forest path might have meant something 300 years ago, it isn’t generally relevant today.
So I guess the question really becomes… are myths and fables still a valid source of patterns for the modern-day person? Or should we be working on creating new myths, new stories to guide us forward?
3 – Where does Spider’s evil really stem from? The cruelty of his origin, or something entirely other, independent of humans?
(Quick aside: Did anyone else have major Neil Gaiman flashbacks when the rat king’s name was revealed as Spider? No, it was just a good name for a grouping of 8? Alright, then.)
While there’s no arguing that purposely tying together live rats’ tails is cruel and thoughtless (and in fact Pratchett makes a note of that at the end of the story), in the case of the rat catchers… it really is thoughtless. The only reason they’d done it in the first place was to meet Guild requirements. No viciousness or guile.
Spider’s storybook villainy takes on Big Boss proportions when the rats, united by hatred and a thirst for vengeance, become something the human rat catchers could never have imagined, however. So is this a warning that when you create something you know to be wrong, it can slip out of your hands and grow into something truly terrible? Or merely a good way of introducing the main bad guy?
I’m inclined toward the former, as the entire book deals with the idea of consequences, and thinking about the greater cause. The rat catcher no doubt thought he was only completing that last step before securing himself employment for the next little while. No harm, no foul, right? How many times in history has the Small Bad Thing that we skim through so quickly coiled back on itself to create monstrous backlash? Intention is important, but so are consequences.
4 – This relates back to question 2, but what if the literature the Rats had found hadn’t been Mr. Bunnsy? If instead, they’d found a children’s pamphlet for cheesemaking (or similar)? Would their goals have been self-sufficiency instead? Or does the intelligent nature force us to seek out other intelligent life and try to share?
SETI, I’m sure, would argue that the rats reaching a pact with the humans was inevitable. I do wonder though — if you are brand new to thinking, what exactly will you think about? Will you think about how to make your life safer and more comfortable (as in the Trap Squad rats)? Or will you think the big thoughts about why you’re here, and your purpose (as Dangerous beans)? I’m getting kind nature vs nurture here (obviously, the material available to you for your education will promote more thinking in its direction), but although the rats might have taken a different path to get there, I do feel it inevitable that they would have confronted the humans in the end. After all, their stated goal was to end the war.
So as humans… do we have a driving goal behind us that is pushing us forward?
5 – On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate this book?
3.5. It was good, definitely re-readable, but… not a book that really blew me out of the water.