Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2577
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different character. The first section, “A Mouse is Born,” begins with the birth of a tiny mouse within the walls of a castle in the Kingdom of Dor. The mouse is the last of...
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- Critical Essays
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different character. The first section, “A Mouse is Born,” begins with the birth of a tiny mouse within the walls of a castle in the Kingdom of Dor. The mouse is the last of his litter and the only one born alive. Certain he will die too, his mother, Antoinette Tilling, names him Despereaux, for despair. Unlike most mice, Despereaux is born with his eyes open. The other mice comment on this, all sure the baby will perish. However, Despereaux lives, although his tiny size and unusually large ears are a constant concern among the castle mice.
Even worse, Despereaux seems uninterested in normal mouse activities—namely, eating. Instead, Despereaux is intrigued by the music he hears throughout the castle and dazzled by the sunlight streaming through the windows. When one of his siblings shows him how to chew on a book, Despereaux discovers he can read, and he becomes enthralled with the fairy tale of a knight rescuing a beautiful princess.
Despereaux particularly loves to listen to King Phillip playing his guitar and singing to his daughter, Princess Pea, every night. Caught up in the music, Despereaux breaks a basic “mouse rule” and reveals himself to the humans. When the princess—or "the Pea", as the author often refers to her—sees the mouse, he comes even closer, and Pea picks him up. Despereaux realizes she looks exactly like the picture of the princess in the fairy tale he adores, and he falls instantly in love. Pea wants to keep the mouse, but her father refuses. Then Despereaux breaks an even greater “mouse rule”—speaking to the humans. He tells the princess not to cry and gives her his name before he runs off.
Unbeknownst to Despereaux, his brother Furlough has witnessed the first moments of Despereaux’s meeting with Pea. Furlough runs to tell their father, Lester, who immediately calls a Mouse Council meeting. At the meeting, the Most Very Honored Mouse declares that something must be wrong with Despereaux, and that his behavior is a threat to all of the mice. The entire Mice Council, including Lester, votes to send Despereaux to the dungeon to be eaten by rats. First, however, Despereaux is called before the Council and given an opportunity to repent.
When Despereaux appears before the Council, he refuses to say he is sorry for what he has done and continues to proclaim his love for the princess. The threadmaster mouse arrives with a spool of red thread and ties a piece around Despereaux’s neck; this mark of death seals Despereaux’s fate. However, the threadmaster whispers words of encouragement in Despereaux’s ear and reveals himself to be a lover of fairy tales as well.
Now wearing the “red thread of death,” Despereaux is pushed down the stairs that lead to the dungeon. He begins to tell himself a story to keep up his courage. The jailer, Gregory, hears him and picks him up. Gregory says he has never saved a mouse before, but he promises to save Despereaux, as long as the mouse tells him a story. Stories, Gregory says, are “light,” and light is “precious” in the darkness of the dungeon. Despereaux begins to tell his story as the first section of the novel ends.
Section two, “Chiaroscuro,” begins a few years before Despereaux’s birth, with the birth of a rat named Chiaroscuro and called Roscuro. As a young rat, Roscuro nibbles on Gregory the jailer’s rope, and to deter the rat, Gregory lights a match in Roscuro’s face. While most rats avoid light, Roscuro stares straight into the flame until the light “danced around inside him.” From then on, he becomes obsessed with light, convinced it is the only thing that gives life meaning.
Roscuro’s friend, Botticelli Remorso, counters that for rats, the purpose of life is to make others suffer. When a new prisoner is brought to the dungeon, Roscuro, following Botticelli’s urgings, attempts to make the man suffer. First, Roscuro talks to the prisoner in an attempt to gain his trust. The man tells Roscuro of the great guilt he feels for selling his daughter for a red tablecloth, a handful of cigarettes and a hen, then leaving her without even looking back. Roscuro steals the prisoner’s one remaining possession—the very same red tablecloth—but finds the act does not satisfy him. Thus, he decides to go upstairs and seek the light.
When Roscuro wanders through the castle, he discovers a party in process and is enchanted by how happy and bright the revelers look, including King Phillip, Queen Rosemary, and Princess Pea. Roscuro decides to watch the party from a chandelier, but he slips and falls into the queen’s bowl of soup.
Soup is Queen Rosemary’s favorite food, and she eats it at every meal. When she sees the rat in her soup, and the rat even says “I beg your pardon,” the queen dies instantly of shock. Roscoro runs off but looks back at the Pea. Her expression full of repulsion and rage, the princess tells the rat to go back to the dark, “where you belong.” Her harsh treatment breaks Roscuro’s heart.
Determined to have something beautiful, Roscuro picks up the queen’s discarded soup spoon, and with it he returns to the dungeon. His thoughts turn to revenge, and his heart mends, but “in a crooked and lopsided way”—he is now obsessed with hurting the princess because she hurt him.
Distraught with grief, the king outlaws soup and all utensils used to make and eat it. The king’s men collect such utensils from all citizens in the Kingdom of Dor and pile the refuse in the dungeon. The king also orders his men to kill every rat in the kingdom, but as this proves impossible, he settles for declaring all rats to be outlaws. Meanwhile, back in the dungeon, Roscuro begins plotting to make Princess Pea suffer—and that is where the second section ends.
Section three, “Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow,” focuses on the girl of the title, often referred to as “Mig.” Mig is six when her mother dies, and soon after, her father sells his daughter as a slave in exchange for a handful of cigarettes, a red tablecloth and a hen. In fact, her father is the same prisoner Roscuro met in section two.
Mig is sold to an unkind man she calls “Uncle” who constantly clouts her on the ears until her ears look like “pieces of cauliflower stuck on either side of her head” and she nearly loses her sense of hearing. On her seventh birthday, Mig sees the royal family riding by, and she is so awed by their splendor and beauty that she calls them “human stars.” At that moment, she wishes fervently to become a princess.
When Mig is twelve, a soldier comes to Uncle’s house to collect all soup-making utensils after the king’s decree. Uncle grumbles that next the king will want his “girl,” and the soldier responds that it is illegal for one human to own another, and Uncle must hand Mig over. Uncle does so, and when the soldier learns Mig has no family, he takes her back to the castle with him, where she will be a paid servant.
On Mig’s first day in the castle, she is asked to carry a spool of red thread to the princess, and thus Mig and Pea meet. They discover that both their mothers have died, and they are both twelve. As Mig continues her duties at the castle, she proves to be a bit slow-witted in addition to being hard of hearing. She fails at every task she is assigned until, finally, she is given the dreaded but simple job of bringing the jailer his lunch in the dungeon. As Mig descends into the dungeon, she sings a little song she has invented: “I ain’t the Princess Pea / But someday I will be.” Roscuro the rat hears Mig’s words and realizes he may have found a way to get his revenge on the princess. Roscuro, wearing the soup spoon on his head and a blood-red cloak made from the prisoner’s tablecloth around his head, approaches Mig in the dungeon and tells her he can make her a princess. Unfortunately, even though Mig is hard of hearing, Roscuro’s voice is “pitched perfectly” for Mig to hear him clearly. Of course, Mig is intrigued by the rat’s offer. Unbeknownst to either Mig or Roscuro, Despereaux is hiding under the napkin on the tray Mig is carrying, and thus overhears their conversation. At this point, the third section ends.
The fourth and final section, “Recalled to the Light,” begins with an explanation of how Despereaux came to be on Mig’s tray. After listening to Despereaux’s story, Gregory the jailer hid the mouse under his napkin on his empty lunch tray, then gave the tray to Mig to carry back upstairs. Thus, Gregory fulfilled his promise to help Despereaux out of the dungeon. When Mig returns to the kitchen, Cook shakes out the napkin, and Despereaux falls into a measuring cup of oil. The cook orders Mig to kill the mouse, but Mig bungles the job and only manages to cut off his tail.
Meanwhile, back in the dungeon, Roscuro chews through the rope Gregory has tied around his ankle to keep him from getting lost in the dungeon. Then, in the middle of the night, Mig heads to Pea’s room, Roscuro in one pocket of her apron and a kitchen knife in the other, as Roscuro goes over their plan. Mig will awaken Pea, show her the knife and threaten to hurt her if she does not follow. Mig will lead Pea to the dungeon, where Pea will teach Mig how to be a princess and Mig will teach Pea how to be a serving girl; then they will switch places. Of course, this is not Roscuro’s real plan—the rat truly intends to lead the princess into the depths of the darkness, have Mig chain her hands and feet, and imprison her there forever.
Once in Pea’s room, Mig bungles the speech, and Roscuro climbs out of her pocket and takes over. The princess recognizes Roscuro as the rat in her mother’s soup, and she also recognizes the soup spoon on his head, but she lies and says she does not know him.
Next, we return to the kitchen, where Roscuro is hiding in a sack of flour. We hear that Gregory the jailer has been found dead, frightened to death after losing his way in the dark dungeon. Then Despereaux overhears that Mig and Pea are both missing, and he decides to look for the king and tell him what has happened.
Before he can find the king, Despereaux runs into the Mouse Council. They see him covered in the flour he slept in and believe he is a ghost. Despereaux’s father says he knows he was wrong to betray his son, that he dreams about it every night, and he begs Despereaux to forgive him. Despereaux does so, for he senses that only by forgiving his father can he stop his own heart “from breaking in two.”
Next, Despereaux finds the king in Pea’s room. However, the king refuses to listen to the mouse, as he believes all rodents are liars. Finally, Despereaux realizes that he must save the princess himself. First, he goes to the threadmaster mouse and asks him for the spool of red thread, explaining he will need it to keep from getting lost in the dungeon. The threadmaster, whom we learn is named Hovis, gives Despereaux the thread along with a needle to use as a weapon.
Despereaux pushes the spool of thread, which weighs almost as much as he does, down three flights of stairs and through the castle until he reaches the dungeon doorway in the kitchen. The Cook, who is making a forbidden pot of soup, sees the mouse but decides that in such “extraordinary times,” she will not bother Despereaux. Instead, she actually gives the mouse a saucer of soup, which fortifies Despereaux. The mouse tells the cook he is going to save the princess, and Cook even holds the door open for him.
Despereaux accidentally drops his thread down the dungeon stairs, and at the bottom of the stairs, he encounters a rat, Roscuro’s friend Botticelli Remorso. Botticelli offers to take Despereaux to Pea. The mouse suspects it is a trick, but out of options, he follows Botticelli, and a line of rats trails behind them through the dungeon.
Next, we learn what has befallen Mig and Pea: Roscuro leads the two to a hidden chamber deep in the dungeon, and once there, he tells Mig to chain the princess. When Mig realizes Roscuro does not intend to make her a princess, Mig protests, and Roscuro tells her “no one cares” what she wants. The princess then asks Mig what she wants, and Mig responds that she wants her mother. Pea says she wants her mother too, and Mig, feeling a connection with the princess, refuses to chain her. However, Roscuro will not lead the two out of the dungeon maze, so they find themselves stuck.
Finally, Botticelli leads Despereaux to the rat and the two girls, and the mouse announces he has come to rescue the princess. Pea recognizes Despereaux’s voice and even remembers his name. When Roscuro blocks Despereaux, Mig aims her knife at the rat’s head, but gets his tail instead. Despereaux draws his needle and aims it at the rat’s heart, but he wonders if killing Roscuro will “really make the darkness go away.”
Roscuro smells the soup on Despereaux’s whiskers and suddenly remembers the party and everything he can never have. In despair, he begs Despereaux to kill him, but Pea tells Despereaux not to do so. The princess has realized that, though she hates Roscuro for what he did to her mother, she must forgive him in order “to save her own heart.” So Pea promises Roscuro that if he leads them out of the dungeon, she will get the cook to make him soup, and he can eat it in the banquet hall.
Roscuro does so, and the novel ends with all the principal characters gathered in the banquet hall, eating soup, as Despereaux’s family and the threadmaster look on. The author lets us know what becomes of the main characters: Pea grants Roscuro the ability to roam the castle, but Roscuro finds he never belongs either in the dungeon or upstairs, as such is “the sad fate…of those whose hearts break and then mend in a crooked way.” However, Roscuro does redeem himself somewhat by telling Pea about the prisoner who is Mig’s father. Pea has the father released, and while Mig does not get to be a princess, she is reunited with her father, who treats her like a princess for the rest of his life. Pea and Despereaux do not marry or fall in love, but they do become great friends and have many adventures together—but that, the author tells us, is a story for another book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
Inside the walls of a castle, a mouse is born. He is unusually small, and he is the only mouse in his litter who does not die at birth. When his mother, Antoinette, sees the tiny newborn, she assumes that he will not live. “All of that work for nothing,” she says.
Antoinette is a French mouse who arrived at the castle a long time ago in the luggage of a visiting diplomat. She gives her new mouse baby a French name, Despereaux, because her life is full of sadness and despair. Then she stops paying attention to him. She calls for her mirror and make-up bag because she looks “a fright.”
Despereaux’s older brothers and sisters gather around to get a look at their new sibling. His brother Furlough points out that his eyes are open. Normally a newborn mouse does not open his eyes for a long time, but Despereaux is different. He stares at the sunlight shining on the ceiling and on his mother’s shard of mirror. “There’s something wrong with him,” says his father, Lester. He tells the older mice to leave the baby alone. Antoinette declares then that she will not have any more babies. Babies disappoint her and ruin her good looks. Lester seems to accept this decision, adding, “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.”
But Despereaux’s father is wrong. The little mouse lives. As he grows older, all the mice in his community gawk at him. His aunt Florence calls him “ridiculous” because he is so small—smaller than any other mouse she has ever seen. His uncle Alfred says his ears are too big, “like donkey ears.” Nobody believes that Despereaux was born with his eyes open. They all agree that is impossible.
Despereaux does not defend himself when people make fun of him. He knows that everything his aunt and uncle say is true. He small and big-eared and sickly. Worse is that he cannot bring himself to act like a proper mouse. For example, he finds it impossible to think constantly about food.
One day when Despereaux goes out foraging with his family, he hears a beautiful sound. He describes it as being “like...um...honey.” Everyone laughs at him for saying this. They explain that he should be smelling for food, not listening for it. His mother tells him to eat more and get fat: “You are such a skinny mouse. You are a disappointment to your mama.” Despereaux apologizes, but he does not do what he is told. He keeps listening to the honey sound instead.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
As Despereaux gets older, his big brothers and sisters try to teach him to act like a proper mouse. His brother Furlough tries first; he takes Despereaux through the castle to show him how to scurry. Furlough leads Despereaux to a wide room with a large, open area and explains how important it is to move quickly through such a space and to watch for danger.
Despereaux does not listen, nor does he watch the detailed demonstration of proper scurrying technique. Instead he looks at the beautiful light shining through the castle’s stained-glass windows. He asks, “What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?”
When Furlough sees Despereaux standing out in the open, he shouts at him to move. “You’re a mouse, not a man. You’ve got to scurry.” But Despereaux cannot tear himself away from the sight of the beautiful stained-glass window. Eventually Furlough gives up and slips out of the room through a mouse-sized hole in the wall. He leaves his little brother behind.
On another day, Despereaux’s sister Merlot tries to show him how to eat books in the castle library. As she points out how crunchy and tasty books are, Despereaux looks at the “squiggles” on the paper, and a strange thing happens. The squiggles appear to him as words, spelling out the “delicious and wonderful” beginning “Once upon a time....” He immediately grasps that the words tell a story, and he refuses to eat the book for fear of ruining it. Merlot, who is not aware that books have anything to do with stories, stares at him like he is crazy. She says their father is right; there is something terribly wrong with Despereaux. She, too, runs away and leaves him behind.
Despereaux knows that Merlot will tell his parents he has failed at another simple mouse task, but he does not mind. He lingers in the library to read the story in the book. It is about a beautiful princess and a brave knight.
The story’s narrator pauses to say that Despereaux will soon need as much bravery as the knight in the story. Unbeknownst to the little mouse, there is a dungeon below the castle, and it is full of big, awful rats. In a little while he will have to go there and face the rats because he refuses to conform. According to the narrator, an interesting future awaits anyone—“mouse or man”—who refuses to do as others do.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431
Soon Despereaux’s brothers and sisters give up trying to help him learn the skills that most mice know by instinct. Without their lessons to occupy his time, he is free to do as he pleases. He wanders around the castle staring at stained glass windows or rereading the story about the knight and the princess. Often he hears the special “honey-sweet sound,” and one day he learns that it is music.
Every night before Princess Pea goes to sleep, her father, King Phillip, plays his guitar and sings to her. When Despereaux learns this, he hides in a hole in the princess’s bedroom wall to listen. The music makes his “soul grow large and light inside of him.” The sound overcomes him, and he feels compelled to go closer. Slowly he creeps out of his hole, moving closer and closer to the king and the princess and the guitar. Even for him, this is abnormally reckless. He knows he should not let humans see him, and usually he avoids them as best he can. But the music pulls him like a magnet.
Princess Pea soon spots Despereaux and points him out to her father. The king, who has bad eyesight, says that Despereaux must be a bug; he is too tiny to be a mouse. The Pea insists that she is right, and when she sees that Despereaux is frightened, she asks her father to play more music. The king complies, and Despereaux cannot stop himself. He slowly tiptoes closer and closer to the sound until he is sitting at the foot of the king.
As the king plays, Princess Pea reaches down and strokes Despereaux’s head. Despereaux stares up at her, thinking that she looks just like the princess in the story about the knight. She smiles at him, and he smiles back. At that moment, he falls in love.
At this point, the narrator pauses to admit that it is ridiculous for a mouse—especially an abnormally small, unhealthy, big-eared mouse like Despereaux—to fall in love with a princess. “Love is ridiculous. But love is also wonderful. And powerful.” Despereaux’s love for the Princess Pea is all three.
At this exact moment, Furlough happens to scurry past the princess’s room. When he sees his little brother sitting with the king, letting the princess pet him, he shouts, “Oh, cripes! He’s nuts! He’s a goner!” He runs off—scurrying properly, as a proper mouse should even in the worst of circumstances—to tell his father exactly what Despereaux is up to now.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
Lester, Despereaux’s father, is horrified when he hears what his son has done. He clutches his whiskers, plucking them out in his agony and fear. He blames Despereaux’s behavior on Antoinette, saying that her French blood must have made the boy crazy. He wails that his son will bring the mouse community to ruin.
Antoinette is not quite so upset. In fact, she seems more interested in examining her nails than in discussing her youngest son. She agrees that Despereaux is a disappointment, but she insists that his failure is as much Lester’s fault as her own. Besides, she says, a tiny mouse like Despereaux cannot do nearly as much damage as Lester thinks.
Lester refuses to listen to her. He says:
If there is one thing I have learned in this world...it is that mice must act like mice or else there is bound to be trouble.
He says the Mouse Council must hold a meeting to decide what should be done about Despereaux’s misbehavior. To call his fellow council members, he takes out a drum made from a thimble with a piece of leather stretched taut over the opening. Holding it high, he beats out a special rhythm.
While all this is going on, Despereaux continues listening to the king’s music. The Pea picks him up and scratches his big ears, which she says are like velvet. Despereaux, who has never before heard his ears complimented, nearly faints with happiness.
The Pea tells her father she wants to keep Despereaux as a pet. At this, the king looks at the mouse more closely and orders the Pea to put him down. “Mice are rodents.... They are related to...rats,” he says. He does not explain exactly why this is so terrible, but he hints at a sad history involving Pea’s mother and a rat. He tells Pea that, as royalty, she has a responsibility not to befriend the distant cousins of her kingdom’s enemies.
At the king’s urging, the Pea puts Despereaux down. The king tries to make Despereaux run away, but the little mouse stays close. When he sees tears begin to fall from the princess’s eyes, he breaks the ancient mouse rule against speaking to a human being. He offers the princess his handkerchief and asks her not to cry.
The king shouts at Despereaux: “Do not speak to her!” He stamps his foot near Desepereaux’s head, and Despereaux has no choice but to back away. He drops his handkerchief and escapes to the hole in the wall. Before he leaves, however, he tells the princess his name, and he promises that he honors her. The king says rodents cannot understand honor, but he is wrong. Despereaux understands honor perfectly. The princess meets his eyes, and he can see that she knows this as well as he does.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418
At the Mouse Council meeting, Lester explains that Despereaux sat at the king’s feet, that he let the princess touch his head, and that he appeared unafraid. The members of the council listen with their mouths open and their whiskers sagging. They are horrified.
When Lester’s speech is finished, the Most Very Honored Head Mouse says that something is very wrong with Despereaux:
His behavior endangers us all. Humans cannot be trusted. We know this to be an indisputable fact.
He lists off Despereaux’s crimes, shuddering in disgust when he gets to the part about a mouse letting a girl touch him. He says that the mouse community cannot trust a mouse who would do such things and that Despereaux will have to be sent to the dungeons and to the rats. When he brings the choice up for a vote, all of the members of the Mouse Council vote yes.
After the decision is made, Lester begins to cry. However, he does not speak up to defend his son. The Most Very Honored Head Mouse decrees that Despereaux will be called before the community and given a chance to deny his actions—or at least admit they were wrong—before he goes to the dungeons. Lester, who knows he is betraying Despereaux, sobs through the whole speech.
As the Mouse Council holds its meeting, Despereaux is in the library rereading the story about the knight and the princess. He reads aloud, desperate to come to the words “happily ever after” at the end. He thinks these words are like a magic spell. If he reads them, they will ensure that he and the Princess Pea have a chance of coming to a happy ending.
Furlough, the Mouse Council’s messenger, arrives looking for Despereaux. When he sees his brother “talking to the paper,” he is disgusted. This sort of behavior is more evidence that little Despereaux is sick and dangerous, unable to understand how the world works. In fact, when Furlough tells Despereaux that the Mouse Council wants him, Despereaux at first refuses to go. He just stares at Furlough dreamily and asks, “Do you know what love is?”
Frustrated, Furlough explains that love makes no difference. He says Despereaux misses “the whole point of everything.” Despereaux should not be thinking about some silly love affair; he should be worrying about why the Mouse Council wants him. Despereaux sighs and mumbles about maidens and honor—but he lets Furlough lead him to his trial.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439
All the castle mice gather inside the ballroom wall for Despereaux’s trial. When Despereaux arrives, the crowd begins to whisper about how he was born with his eyes open. Some of the mice recoil, disgusted; others push close to touch him. Furlough leads the way through the masses, shouting for everyone to make room. Despereaux has to cling to his brother’s tail to make his way through.
When they get to the front, where the Mouse Council awaits them atop three piled bricks, Furlough makes his brother let go of his tail. The mice in the crowd call out for Despereaux to be sent to the dungeons immediately, but the Most Very Honored Head Mouse silences them, demanding that everyone act civilized. He tells Despereaux to look at him, and Despereaux obeys. The little mouse reads sadness and fear in the Head Mouse’s deep, dark eyes.
In response to the Most Very Honored Head Mouse’s questions, Despereaux admits that he sat at the foot of the human king and let the princess touch them. But he protests that he wanted to listen to the king’s music, and that the princess’s touch “felt good.” At this point, the crowd erupts in protests, and the Most Very Honored Head Mouse has to silence them again. He makes Despereaux admit that he broke the “never-to-be-broken rules of conduct for being a mouse.” Despereaux protests that he did it for love, and the Head Mouse commands him to stop bringing up unimportant issues:
This trial is not about love. This trial is about you being a mouse...and not acting like one.
Because Despereaux does not deny the charges against him, the Most Very Honored Head Mouse sentences him to the dungeon and the rats. Hearing this, Despereaux realizes that he is being sent away from stained glass and music and the Pea. The Most Very Honored Head Mouse asks if he wants to renounce his actions, but Despereaux does not understand. The old mouse explains that he is being given a chance to say he is sorry he did what he did.
Despereaux thinks it over. He says no, whispering the word at first and then speaking louder:
I am not sorry. I will not renounce my actions. I love her. I love the princess.
Hearing this, the mouse community surges forward and demands that Despereaux be sent to the dungeons at once. Their cries are strong and painful, like a physical attack.
Despereaux is amazed at his own boldness in refusing to renounce his actions. He congratulates himself for being so honorable. Then he faints.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
Despereaux awakes from his faint to hear his father beating a drum in a slow, threatening rhythm. Despereaux looks at the ceiling and wonders what could have gone so wrong. In the book about the knight and the princess, love makes people happy. It inspires them to be brave and honorable. He thinks of the words “happily ever after” and wonders whether this is the real ending of the book. Maybe there was another, darker ending, and some other mouse ate it. Maybe happy endings do not exist.
A mouse comes forward with a spool of red thread and asks Despereaux to stand up on his hind legs. When Despereaux complies, this other mouse—known as the threadmaster—pauses to thank him. The threadmaster snips off a bit of thread with his teeth, muttering to himself about the importance of avoiding waste. When he comes close to tie the thread around Despereaux’s neck, he asks in a whisper whether the princess is beautiful. Surprised, Despereaux says yes, and the threadmaster replies:
And you love her, as a knight loves a maiden. You love her with a courtly love, a love that is based on bravery and courtesy and honor and devotion.
Despereaux asks this mouse how he knows about fairy tales. The threadmaster shushes him and says to be courageous for the sake of the princess. Despereaux decides that this is a good idea. Even if happy endings do not exist, bravery can.
The drum continues booming, and the threadmaster moves away. The crowd falls silent. Two mice in black hoods come forward and take Despereaux by the shoulders. Antoinette approaches, and Despereaux straightens up, trying not to tremble and be a disappointment. His mother demands to know what will happen to her youngest son, and the mice in black say the rats will eat him.
Hearing this, Despereaux quivers and almost faints, but Antionette faints first. The big mice in the hoods grab Despereaux and pull him through the crowd, which parts to let them pass. The mice begin to chant in time with the beating of the drum: “To the dungeon. To the dungeon.”
As Despereaux is led away, Antionette calls after him. She does not say anything noble or comforting. She does not ask the big mice to stop, nor does she demand that they take her away in her son’s place. She only says adieu, the French word for good-bye. To Despereaux, this word sounds sorrowful. He hears no bravery in it, no promise.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417
The big mice in black hoods escort Despereaux through the castle toward the rat-infested dungeon. On the way, they pass all the beautiful things Despereaux knows he is leaving behind. They pass all the places where he might have a chance to glimpse the princess—but she does not appear. Despereaux cannot stand the idea that he is just going to disappear and that the Pea will never know what has happened to him. Turning to the mice in black, he asks if they will take him to speak to her one last time.
The mice in black stop, shocked that Despereaux would want to speak to a human. One of them says, “You can’t learn, can you?” and Despereaux recognizes his voice. One of the mice taking him to the dungeon is his brother Furlough. Despereaux begs Furlough to free him, but Furlough insists on following the rules. This makes Despereaux think of the word perfidy, which means betrayal.
Furlough and the other black-hooded mouse take Despereaux to the top of a tall staircase, then he makes a speech about sending a mouse to the dungeon “wearing the red thread of death.” Before Despereaux can think through the ominous sound of this phrase, his brother gives him a shove, and he falls headlong down the stairs into the darkness. As he falls, he thinks two words over and over: “Perfidy. Pea. Perfidy. Pea.”
To Despereaux’s surprise, he lands at the bottom of the staircase with no broken bones. He gets up. It is too dark to see, but he smells “despair and suffering and hopelessness”—the smell of rats. Despereaux speaks into the darkness, and his voice echoes in the emptiness. He is desperate to feel something familiar, so he grabs his tail to reassure himself.
There at the bottom of the dungeon stairs, Despereaux almost faints. However, he remembers the threadmaster’s advice to be brave and honor the princess. Again he speaks aloud, declaring that he will be brave for the Pea. However, he has no idea what to do with his bravery. He thinks of the story of the knight and the princess, and he begins telling it out loud to the darkness. A loud voice near him interrupts:
Once upon a time? A knight in shining armor? What does a mouse know of such things?
From the volume and gruffness, Despereaux thinks that this voice must belong to a big, bloodthirsty rat. His bravery fails him, and he faints again.
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Despereaux awakes from his faint to find himself in the hand of a man. The man holds a match in his other hand, and it sheds a little light on the mouse and his red thread necklace. He lights a candle and shows Despereaux a rope tied around his own ankle. The man says that his rope saves him, whereas Despereaux’s “red thread of death” will kill him.
Hearing this, Despereaux’s heartbeat quickens, but he does not faint again. He asks who the man is and learns he is Gregory, the jailer. Gregory has been keeping watch over the dungeon for many years, and in some ways he is a prisoner himself. Despereaux asks if Gregory will let him go, and Gregory says there is no freedom in the dungeon. Those who wander the maze of tunnels always get lost and die. Only Gregory and the rats can find their way through—"the rats because they know, because the way of it mirrors their own dark hearts," and Gregory because he wears a rope tied around his ankle, which leads him back to the entrance.
Gregory explains that the rats are coming to kill Despereaux. They will tear him up until nothing is left but red thread. Gregory claims that mice have been killed in this way many times during his years in the dungeons. Despereaux protests; he needs to live because he is in love and has to serve the princess. Gregory laughs and says love is unwise. He shows Despereaux a pile of bowls and kettles and spoons gathering dust. He says this pile is “a monument to the foolishness of love.” The pile is somehow connected to the death of the king’s beloved wife, the queen. Despereaux does not understand, and he says so. Gregory says, “And you will not understand until you lose what you love.”
Before Despereaux can ask any more questions, Gregory offers to save him. Despereaux does not understand why the jailer would help, since he admits that he has never saved a mouse before. Gregory says he will save Despereaux in return for a story. “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark,” Gregory says. He holds Despereaux up to his ear, and Despereaux begins telling a fairy tale. In this way, he becomes the first mouse ever sent to the dungeons who does not get torn to shreds by the rats.
At this point, the narrator announces to the reader that it is time to leave Despereaux’s story for a while. For now, the novel’s attention will shift to the story of a rat.
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The story shifts back in time to a day several years before Despereaux’s birth, when a rat called Chiaroscuro is born. Chiaroscuro refers to a mixture of light and darkness, but rats do not like light. His parents, who like all rats have a sense of humor, give their son this name as a joke. However, Chiaroscuro—who is soon nicknamed Roscuro—surprises everyone by developing an abnormal interest in light.
One day Roscuro finds a rope on the floor of the dungeon. He begins to chew it, and a human hand comes down and picks him up by the tail. The hand belongs to Gregory, who demands to know what Roscuro is up to. “Who wants to know?” asks Roscuro because rats cannot help being sassy. Gregory tells Roscuro that all rats should know not to chew on his rope. To punish the young rat, he lights a match and holds it in his face. Instead of flinching away as most rats would, Roscuro stares at the flame. Gregory demands an apology, and when Roscuro refuses, he holds the match closer, singeing the whiskers off Roscuro’s face. When the match burns out, Gregory drops Roscuro back into the darkness.
Afterward, Roscuro sits still in the dark corridor, staring at the ghost of the light that still floats in front of his eyes. After that, he looks for more light everywhere. In the dungeons, it is sadly hard to find. One day he tells his friend Botticelli Remorso that he thinks light is the meaning of life. Botticelli disagrees:
The meaning of life...is suffering, specifically the suffering of others. Prisoners, for instance. Reducing a prisoner to weeping and wailing and begging is a delightful way to invest your existence with meaning.
Botticelli goes on to explain how to do this. He thinks it is best for a rat to trick a new prisoner into thinking he is a friend and then to tempt the prisoner with the promise of whatever he wants—forgiveness or freedom, for example. When the prisoner is convinced that the rat is a friend, the rat’s job is to withhold the prize and dash the prisoner’s hopes, and then to run back and forth over his feet to add physical terror to his emotional suffering.
As he explains all this, Botticelli dangles a gold locket in front of Roscuro’s face, swinging it back and forth to hypnotize him. Roscuro agrees that he would like to torture a prisoner. Botticelli says all the prisoners are currently taken, but he promises that a new one will come soon. He explains that he knows this because “thankfully there is evil in this world.” Botticelli promises that Roscuro will have the right to torture the next prisoner who arrives. Then he makes the young rat agree that light is unimportant.
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Soon a new prisoner is to arrive in the dungeon. Botticelli takes Roscuro to watch him enter, and Roscuro promises to make the man suffer. Some soldiers open the door at the top of the stairs, and a huge patch of light bursts in. Botticelli hides his face, but Roscuro looks up into it. He gasps and watches as a person at the top of the stairs throws a red blanket down through the shaft of light and into the dungeon. At the bottom of the stairs, Gregory picks up the cloth and hands it to the prisoner, warning him that he will need the warmth.
Afterward, Botticelli says the light was “hideously ugly,” but Roscuro calls it beautiful. He says he wants to go upstairs. “I must see more light. I must see all of it,” he says. Botticelli explains that upstairs is “the domain of mice,” who are weak and fearful. He goes on to say that rats are strong and cruel, meant to inflict suffering in the dungeon and darkness. When Botticelli sees that Roscuro still wants to go, he advises him to take away the prisoner’s red cloth. “But do not go up into the light. You will regret it,” Botticelli says. He reminds Roscuro that he is a rat and that, as a rat, he has a role to play.
Roscuro goes to the prisoner’s cell and offers to hear the man’s confession. At first the prisoner says he does not want to talk to a rat, but eventually he admits he is a cow thief. Then he goes on to say that he committed his real crime long ago, when he sold his only daughter for this red tablecloth, a hen, and some cigarettes. When he left the little girl, she was in tears, and he walked away without looking back.
This crime does not surprise Roscuro. His parents, like most rat parents, did not care much for him. He knows they would have sold him if they could have profited from the sale. He asks the prisoner if the red cloth reminds him of his sin. When the prisoner admits that it does, Roscuro seizes the prize in his teeth and takes it away. The prisoner demands it back, calling him a “dirty rat.” Roscuro seems pleased by this insult. He drags the cloth away and stares at it, but it disappoints him. He does not want the cloth. He wants light. He decides to go upstairs.
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Roscuro, who has spent all his life in the darkness of the dungeons, creeps upstairs into the light. At that moment, in the upstairs walls, Despereaux is being born. They are destined to meet eventually, but not today.
Today Roscuro walks “light-bedazzled” through the castle halls. Amazed with the beauty of everything he sees, he declares that he will never go back to the dungeons. He decides he does not want to torture prisoners or live in suffering ever again. He belongs upstairs.
Soon Roscuro finds the banquet hall, where King Philip, Queen Rosemary, and the Princess Pea are presiding over a gathering of noble people and minstrels and army men. Roscuro, who has never seen happy humans before, is delighted by the mood and by the glittering of the clothing and dishes in the hall. He is especially taken with the princess, whose sequined gown flashes in the light and who laughs so beautifully she seems to make the light brighter. Seeing all this, Roscuro decides, “Suffering is not the answer. Light is the answer.” In wonderment, he marches in to join the party.
At first, the people at the party are so busy being happy that they do not notice Roscuro. He climbs up their table, makes his way between the plates, and leaps onto a glittering chandelier that dangles over the proceedings. He hangs by a paw, swinging slightly and taking in the laughter, the smells, the juggling, and the music. The beauty of it all amazes him so much he can hardly believe it.
Rats are not normally welcome at human parties, and even at a very merry gathering like this one, someone is bound to notice a rat dangling in the midst of the party. The person who spots Roscuro is the Princess Pea. “A rat is hanging from the chandelier!” she shouts.
At first, nobody hears the Pea except Roscuro, who for the first time notices how ugly the word rat is. It is
an extremely distasteful syllable.... A curse, an insult, a word totally without light.
When he hears the princess call him a rat, Roscuro realizes that he hates being what he is. He wants to be something else instead. This knowledge hits him so suddenly and surprises him so much that his grip slips on the chandelier. He falls back down to the table—and he lands right in the queen’s soup.
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The Queen adores soup. She loves it so much that she orders it for every meal and every banquet at the castle. Cook, who loves the queen almost as much as the queen loves soup, has worked hard to raise soup “from the level of mere food to high art.” On the day Roscuro falls into the queen’s bowl, Cook has done an especially brilliant job. The ingredients in the soup go together perfectly, and the contents of the bowl taste so good that Roscuro stops to sip it and compliment the chef.
The Pea leaps from her chair and points, shrieking, at the rat in her mother’s soup. All around her, people stop juggling and playing music and eating. The queen looks down at Roscuro, who is not pretty even under the best of circumstances. In a soup bowl, with watercress hanging from his whiskers, he is hideous. “I beg your pardon,” he says.
The queen screams and flings her soupspoon to the ground. She is not a very creative person, so she usually states the obvious, and this moment is no exception. “There is a rat in my soup,” she says. Then she clutches her chest, falls backward out of her chair, and dies of shock.
Everyone leaps from the table. The king shouts that his wife must be saved, and the nobles and minstrels rush to obey—but they cannot bring the dead back to life. Roscuro climbs out of the bowl and decides he ought to leave. As he creeps toward the exit, he remembers what the prisoner said in the dungeon about being sorry he never looked back at his daughter. Roscuro pauses and looks back at the princess, and he sees that she is staring at him with hatred. Her gaze is fierce and unforgiving. It seems to speak, telling him to leave the beauty of the upstairs world and slink back to the dungeons and darkness. Roscuro’s heart breaks.
Leaving the banquet hall, Roscuro tells himself, “I am a rat. And there is no light for rats. There will be no light for me.” However, he wants something beautiful—a crown. He steals the queen’s soupspoon and places it on his head. When his heart heals itself, it does so “in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.” He decides he must take revenge on the princess for sending him to a life of darkness.
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Every action is followed by a consequence. When Roscuro, as a young rat, gnaws on Gregory’s rope, Gregory lights a match in his face. The match in his face sets his soul on fire, causing him to journey up the stairs into the light. There he is spotted by Princess Pea, who utters the word rat and makes him understand how awful it is to be what he is. This realization makes him fall into the queen’s bowl of soup, which shocks and ultimately kills the queen. In this way, causes and effects link every action to every other action.
The king is heartbroken over the queen’s death. After she dies while eating soup, he outlaws soup. He outlaws every implement used to make or eat soup, and so all the bowls and kettles and spoons are gathered from the land and dumped in the king’s dungeons. Because Roscuro’s presence in the soup bowl brought about her death, the king orders all rats in the land to be killed as well. The king’s men march into the dungeons, but the rats are smart enough not to be found. The king’s men kill very few rats, and some of them get lost and die as they search the dungeons.
When King Philip realizes he cannot kill all the rats, he simply declares them illegal. This makes the rats outlaws, but since they are already outlaws it is a fairly silly law. However, as the narrator points out:
When you are a king, you may make as many ridiculous laws as you like. That is what being a king is all about.
At this point, the narrator reminds the reader of the king’s love for his wife. Making silly laws is his way of comforting himself, as we all must sometimes comfort ourselves, because
No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying.
Back down in the dungeon, Roscuro wears his spoon as a crown and makes himself a kingly cape from a piece of his stolen blanket. Botticelli asks him if he has learned his lesson, and Roscuro says he has. From now on he intends to act like a rat and cause suffering.
Roscuro spends all his time planning to make the princess suffer for the way she looked at him. He works on his plans as, far away upstairs, Despereaux first hears music. He works on his plans as a wagon full of bowls and spoons comes rolling toward the castle. Beside the wagon’s driver sits a young girl with ears like “pieces of cauliflower stuck on either side of her head." Her name is Miggory Sow. Very soon, the narrator tells us, Miggory Sow will help Roscuro take his revenge.
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Several years before Despereaux begins his adventures, even before Chiaroscuro begins his, a girl named Miggery Sow is born. She comes into life far away from the castle, and her parents name her after her father’s best pig. When she is six years old, her mother grows very sick. Miggery stands by the bedside anxiously watching. She says she does not want her mother to go away, and her mother says, “Ah, child, and what does it matter what you are wanting?” These are her final words; she dies as soon as she finishes saying them.
Soon afterward, Miggery’s father takes her to the marketplace and sells her as a servant. In exchange, he receives some cigarettes, a hen, and a red tablecloth. Miggery begs him not to go away. She tells him she wants him to stay. Her father says, “Lord, child...and who is asking what you want?” He leaves her there and walks away. She cries and calls after him, but as we have already learned from his confession to Roscuro in the dungeon, he does not look back—not even once.
Miggery is forced to call the man who bought her Uncle. She takes care of his sheep, cooks for him, and scrubs the kettle he uses for making soup. He makes her work like this all day, every day, and he never thanks her or praises her.
Uncle often gives Miggery “a good clout on the ear.” Sometimes she says she does not want him to hit her, but her protests make little difference. Like Miggery’s parents, Uncle has little interest in what Mig wants. He hits her so often and with so much energy that soon both of her ears begin to look “like pieces of cauliflower stuck to either side of her head.” Her ears also stop working properly, so that words sound less and less distinct to her. She begins to make less sense of what she hears, and so she does her work more and more poorly. This means she gets hit on the ear more and more often, which makes her ability to hear even worse.
This, the narrator explains,
is what is known as a vicious circle. And Miggery Sow [is] right at the center of it.
The narrator observes that nobody would want to be in such a position—but she adds that nobody much cares what Miggery wants.
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On Miggery Sow’s seventh birthday, she does not get any cake or presents. She tells Uncle that it is her birthday, but he just shouts at her and gives her a clout on the ear. Then he sends her out to tend the sheep.
While Mig is out in the fields, she sees something that glitters and seems to glow. At first she thinks it is the sun, but she looks around and sees that the sun is sinking in the west, as it should. She turns back to the other, more unusual shining thing and watches as it draws closer. It turns out to be a royal procession.
King Philip, Queen Rosemary, and Princess Pea ride up the road on horses. Each one wears a golden crown, and they all wear flowing jeweled robes that reflect the light. Men and horses wearing shining armor ride all around them. “Gor,” says Mig as she watches. (This word, gor, is what Mig says whenever she is surprised or amazed.)
Of all the members of the royal family, the princess attracts Mig’s attention most powerfully. The princess notices Mig, too, and waves—but Mig is too busy watching to wave back. This upsets the princess, who asks her father what is wrong with the girl. The king says to let it go, and over the princess’s protests they ride on, carrying themselves past the sheep fields and into the distance.
Mig continues to stare. As she does so, something happens deep inside her. It is as if the beauty of the king and queen and princess light a candle inside her. She begins to feel hope. “And hope is like love...a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.” At first Mig does not know what to call this strange emotion. She touches her ear, which is still sore, and decides that it feels “exactly the opposite of a good clout.”
At home that night, Mig tells Uncle what she saw. She calls the royal family “human stars” and says she wants to be like them. Uncle makes fun of her, saying she is not even worth the money he paid for her. He says he wishes he had back his hen, which was a good layer, and his tablecloth, which was such an unusual color. Mig persists, saying she wants to be a princess and wear a crown, and Uncle puts his empty kettle on top of his head. “I’m a king. See my crown?... I’m a king because I want to be one.” He dances around laughing, then asks Mig if she wants a clout on the ear for talking nonsense. She says no but gets one anyway. Uncle says:
We will hear no more talk of princesses. Besides, who ever asked you what you wanted in this world, girl?
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Mig spends several more years scrubbing Uncle’s hut and tending his sheep. Over that time, he hits her on the ears more times than she can count. Every day at sunset, she goes out to the fields and looks, hoping to see the royal family pass by again. She dearly wants to see the little princess again. And just as dearly, she wants to become a princess herself.
In a strange way, Mig’s first wish is granted when King Philip outlaws soup. A soldier pounds on the door of Uncle’s hut and says that soup is now against the law. He says nobody is allowed to eat or talk about soup ever again, and he demands that Uncle hand over his kettle, bowls, and spoons. Uncle has not yet heard of King Philip’s law, so he is shocked and upset. He demands to know what they will eat, and the soldier suggests cake—but Uncle cannot afford cake.
Uncle grumbles that without his kettle, he has no possessions left except some sheep and a girl. This comment catches the soldier’s attention because slavery is illegal in the kingdom. He says that Uncle must hand over Miggery Sow, even though Uncle “paid for her fair and square.” If Uncle refuses, he will be sent to the castle dungeon.
Soon Miggery is sitting in a wagon full of kettles and spoons next to one of the king’s soldiers. He asks about her family, and she explains that her mother is dead and her father sold her. He says he will have to take her to the castle, and Mig says she wants to be a princess. The soldier calls this a “fine dream” and also says it is good she is glad to be going:
Might as well be happy, seeing as how it doesn’t make a difference to anyone but you if you are or not.
He explains that Miggery will be a castle servant who is paid wages, not a slave who is forced to work for nothing. Miggery is pleased with this arrangement. She is twelve years old. She has been sold, left behind, and beaten by everyone she has ever known. In spite of this, she has not lost hope. The narrator muses that maybe it is bad for her to hope when she has no reason to do so. But maybe, as the soldier suggests, it is a good thing. After all, nobody but Mig cares whether she hopes or not.
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On Miggery Sow’s first day as a castle servant, she has to deliver a spool of red thread to the princess. Her boss, Louise, tells her sternly that she has to curtsy. Mig takes the thread and joyfully makes her way up a golden staircase, telling herself how lucky she is to be going to see the princess so soon. When she gets to the door, she suddenly wonders whether she is supposed to curtsy before giving over the thread or after. After a great deal of thought, she decides the curtsy should come first.
Mig knocks on Princess Pea’s door three times, but her ears are so bad that she does not hear when the princess calls out to her to enter. Just when she decides the princess must not be home, the door swings open, and Mig comes face to face with the princess herself. “Gor,” says Mig. She announces that she has to curtsy. In her attempt to do this right, she drops the spool of thread, steps on it, and falls down. The Pea tries not to laugh, but she cannot help it. Still, she thanks Mig graciously for the thread, commenting that her red spools always seem to go missing.
Mig asks what the princess is making, and the Pea explains that she is weaving a tapestry of her life. It includes a picture of the king playing the guitar and the queen eating soup. Mig gasps at the latter, saying that soup is illegal. The Pea explains that this law came about because her mother died while eating soup. Mig says that her mother is dead too, and the princess seems sad for her.
Near the end of her conversation with the princess, Mig announces that she will someday have a horse and crown and be a princess, too. Princess Pea gives her a long, thoughtful look, but she does not make fun of Mig’s ambition. She just says, “Really?” and lets the matter drop.
When Mig returns to Louise, she receives a clout on the ear for taking so long to deliver the thread. Louise says that Mig is not going to be a very good servant, and Mig says that is okay. She explains that she is soon going to be a princess instead. “Don’t make me laugh,” says Louise—but this is a joke. She never laughs, “not even at the notion as ridiculous as Miggery Sow becoming a princess.”
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At the castle, Mig gets enough to eat for the first time in her life. She eats a great deal, and she quickly grows fat. Unfortunately, she does not do well in her work. The narrator explains that Mig is “the tiniest bit lazy.” She adds, too, that the girl is “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
Louise, the head servant at the castle, has a hard time finding a job Mig can do. Mig cannot be a lady in waiting because she tries on the dresses instead of helping noblewomen put them on. She cannot be a seamstress because she accidentally sews the clothing to her frock. She cannot be a chambermaid because she stands around gasping at the beauty of the rooms rather than cleaning them.
Mig’s actions—like Despereaux’s and Roscuro’s—have consequences. Because she cannot or will not do her work well, she is sent to Cook, who has a reputation for making lazy servants work hard. However, Mig messes up in the kitchen just as much as in her other jobs. She drops eggshells into food and scrubs the floor with oil instead of soap. Cook calls her “the good-for-nothing-est” servant she has ever met. She says that Mig will have to do the worst, most dreaded task of all.
Just like the mice, the people of the castle are afraid of the dungeon. There are many stories of people getting lost there. As everyone who lives upstairs knows, the dungeon’s maze of tunnels often emits strange howling sounds on cold nights—which might or might not be caused by the wind. Generally speaking, when serving girls get sent to the dungeon, they go weeping and shaking down the stairs. According to rumors that run through the castle, some serving girls have gone down those stairs and never made it back.
Cook takes Mig aside and, shouting to make herself heard through the girl’s poor cauliflower ears, explains her new assignment. Every day, she will carry a tray down to the dungeon, wait for the old man, Gregory, to eat the food on it, and then carry the empty tray back up. Cook mutters that Mig will probably find a way to mess up even this simple job, but Mig does not seem upset. Cook watches, alarmed, as the girl cheerfully descends the stairs. “What’s to become of someone who goes into the dungeon smiling, I ask you?” she says.
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When Mig lived with Uncle, he sometimes missed his mark when he hit her on the ears. Sometimes one of his clouts landed on her poor nose instead. Because of this, Mig’s sense of smell is almost as badly damaged as her hearing is. In her ordinary life this is usually a disadvantage, but in the dungeon it is a good thing. It makes her unaware of “the overwhelming stench of despair and hopelessness and evil.”
Mig chatters to herself as she walks down the stairs. When she sees how dark it is, she does not allow herself to feel daunted. She tells herself that if she were a princess, she would be “so glittery lightlike” that nowhere would seem dark anymore. The staircase is long, so on the descent she entertains herself by singing a little song about how she will someday be the Princess Pea. She has no musical talent, so her singing is basically just bellowing.
Mig’s singing attracts the attention of a rat who is skulking in a shadowy corner. He is wearing a red cape around his neck. He has a spoon perched on his head. He mutters to himself that this is exactly the kind of song he likes to hear, and he follows Mig to find out where she goes.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mig calls out into the darkness. At first she hears no response. To most people’s ears, the quiet in the dungeon is not a good, peaceful kind of quiet. It is the kind of quiet that seems wrong and scary. Tiny sounds fill it, such as “the snail-like sound of water oozing down the walls” and “the low moan of someone in pain.” Also, there are rat sounds, clicks of rat toes and splashes of rat tails dragged through blood and muck. Anyone besides Miggery Sow would hear these sounds and be extremely scared—but Mig, happily, hears nothing at all. She stays quite happy when most other people would be quaking in far.
Mig holds up the tray so the light of the candle streams out on the room. When she sees the pile of spoons and bowls, she is shocked. She mutters to herself that she never imagined so many. From the darkness, Gregory the jailer responds, “There is more to this world than anyone could imagine.” Roscuro, who is crawling unnoticed around Mig’s feet, agrees that this is true.
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Gregory takes his food from Miggery, complaining that there is no soup. In his opinion, the law against soup is “too foolish to be borne.” Mig watches as he gobbles down his chicken, swallowing even the bones. This impresses her so much that she decides to announce she will one day be a princess.
Roscuro is still at Mig’s feet, and he does a dance of joy. When he catches Gregory watching him, he slips beneath Mig’s skirts. Gregory does not tell Mig he is there. He just says that everyone has “a foolish dream.” He comments that he has such a dream himself; he wants soup to be legal again. He finishes his food and gives the tray back to Mig.
Mig takes the tray, happily chattering that it will be her job to return it, empty, upstairs to the kitchen. Gregory asks if she was also told “to beware of the rats.” When Mig says no, he explains that she should be careful. Hearing this, Roscuro mutters to himself that it does not matter how much Mig is warned. He will trick her into helping him, and he will have his revenge on the princess.
The rat follows Mig up the stairs. When she is nearly at the top, he stops her and asks for a word. Mig shines her light on him and tells him she is not supposed to trust rats. Roscuro tells her not to worry. He lifts his soup spoon from his head, just as a man might lift his cap in respect. Mig is impressed by his manners, so she does not turn away. Instead she comments that her father sold her for a cloth that was much the same color as Roscuro’s cape.
Roscuro, who by some miracle has the perfect pitch of voice to carry through Mig’s damaged ears, introduces himself and explains that he can help her. He says that he knows she has big plans, and he claims he can help her become a princess. He calls Mig “Your Highness” and describes a plan. It is full of evil, but it plays exactly into Mig’s deepest wishes.
Mig listens with so much interest, and Roscuro speaks with so much intensity, that neither of them hears the small, outraged noises coming from the tray. Neither of them sees the napkin move or the mouse peek out from beneath it. Both of them remain totally focused on Roscuro’s “diabolical plan to bring the princess to darkness.”
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Back in the castle kitchen, Mig begins to clear the dishes off her tray. When she touches the napkin that is hiding Despereaux, he falls into Cook’s measuring cup, which is full of oil. Cook shrieks in outrage at the sight of a mouse in her kitchen. She demands that Mig fish him out of the cup and kill him. Mig grabs him and picks up a knife, but she seems a little sorry for him. When he slips out of her fingers and falls to the floor, she seems glad he has a chance to live.
Because she does not want to kill Desperaux, Mig tells Cook that the shock of his fall probably killed him already. Cook says to kill him anyway:
That’s my philosophy with mice. If they’re alive, kill them. If they’re dead, kill them. That way you can be certain of having yourself a dead mouse, which is the only kind of mouse to have.
Mig pretends to agree, but she leans down and whispers to Despereaux to “skedaddle.” A second later, she brings the knife down on his tail, cutting it off.
For the first time in his life, Despereaux manages to scurry like a real mouse. He zigs and zags and looks fearfully behind him. Quickly as he can, he disappears under the pantry door. “Gor!” says Mig. When Cook realizes that Mig failed to kill the mouse, she gives her a sharp smack on the ear.
Inside the pantry, Despereaux climbs on top of a bag of flour and cries. He is in shock and pain, but he is also relieved. He has escaped from the dungeon, from a sentence of death. Now that he is back in the world of light and life, he has a chance to honor and serve the princess. The pressure of the stress, pain, and mixed emotions overcome him. He cries himself to sleep.
Despereaux dreams about a knight swinging a sword at the darkness. The darkness takes the shape of everyone who has betrayed Despereaux or acted with evil in his life: his mother, his father, Furlough, and a cunning rat. As the knight fights, Despereaux calls out and asks who he is. The knight replies, “You know me,” but Despereaux insists he does not. The knight pulls off his armor, but nothing is underneath. In his sleep, Despereaux realizes that knights in shining armor are just pretend, like happy endings. Still sleeping, he begins to cry again.
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As Despereaux sleeps, Roscuro sets to work on his terrible plan for revenge on the princess. The narrator warns us that this part of the story is a horrible one, full of violence and evil. However, she explains, dark stories have their own kind of value. The world is not perfect, and not everything can be “sweetness and light.” So she moves forward, intent on telling even the worst part of this story, and inviting her readers to come along and hear it.
Roscuro’s first action in enacting his plans is to chew through Gregory’s rope, finishing the job he started when he was just a young rat. Without his rope to guide him home, the jailer gets lost in the dungeon. Then, in the middle of the night, Miggery Sow climbs the stairs to the princess’s room. She carries a candle, Roscuro, and a knife—the same knife she used to cut off Despereaux’s tail.
As she walks, Mig exclaims at the darkness. Because she cannot hear, her typical speaking voice sounds like a shout. Roscuro interrupts her and asks her to whisper so she will not wake anyone up. He suggests reviewing their plan. Mig says she understands it already, but Roscuro does not trust her intelligence. He insists on talking through it one more time.
Mig lists off what she is supposed to do. First, she has to go into the princess’s room, wake her up, and threaten her with the knife. She will lead the Pea to the dungeons, where the two of them will trade clothing and roles. The princess will receive lessons in how to be a lady in waiting—her “divine comeuppance” for being born a princess in the first place—and Mig will learn to be a princess. When they both know their new jobs, they will return to the castle. Mig will be the new princess, and she will live happily ever after.
This plan would never work. Nobody would ever mistake Mig for the princess or the princess for Mig. But Mig, as we already know, is not very clever. More importantly, she wants to be a princess so badly that she is able to make herself believe even the most ridiculous plan.
Roscuro does not need to believe the whole plan will work. His real intentions are much simpler and much more evil than the plan he has presented to Mig: He wants to take the princess deep into the dungeon, chain her up, and leave her there forever.
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The Pea is asleep, dreaming about her mother. The queen is eating soup. She gives the princess a taste, and it is wonderful. The princess asks for more, but the queen says no. She says she only wanted to give the Pea a little so she would remember. She disappears, and then the princess hears someone calling to her to wake up.
Opening her eyes, the princess sees Miggery Sow with a knife and a candle. Mig tells the princess to come along if she does not want to get hurt. The princess, who is not used to being ordered around, refuses to move. Roscuro crawls out of Mig’s pocket and tips his spoon at the princess. He explains that she should do as Mig suggests because Mig has a knife and is not afraid to use it. At first, the princess is not the least bit scared. She says that nobody can threaten a princess, but Roscuro points out that a knife knows no difference between royal blood and ordinary blood.
Now the Pea seems a little more uncertain. She looks to Mig for reassurance, but Mig only smiles. She says, “But we are friends...aren’t we, Mig?” Mig does not hear the question properly, and Roscuro says that Mig is “easily led.” He tells the Pea to talk to him, not to Mig, because he is the one in charge.
The princess pretends not to recognize Roscuro, but she does. She knows him as the rat who killed her mother. She feels sick with rage at his presence, especially because she also recognizes her mother’s soup spoon on his head. She tries not to look at him, but Roscuro begins to taunt her: “Does it pain your royal sensibilities to let your eyes rest on a rat?” The Pea refuses to be bullied. She meets his eyes defiantly.
Roscuro orders the princess to put on her finest ball gown, the one she was wearing on the night of her mother’s death. He makes her don her crown as well. He tells her to hurry so they can take their “little journey” while everyone else is asleep and unaware that the princess is missing.
The princess moves to do as she is told, but she pauses, claiming she needs somebody to help her with her buttons. Roscuro laughs at this, saying that she cannot trick him into letting Mig put down her knife. He makes the princess sit still, and he crawls up her back, doing up her buttons for her. As he does this, the princess licks her lips and thinks of the taste of soup from her dream. She whispers, “I have not forgotten, Mama.”
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Mig and Roscuro lead the princess down the golden stairs at knifepoint. In the whole castle, they are the only people awake. The only light is the candle in Mig’s hand. Everyone else is asleep and dreaming in the dark. King Philip dreams about his wife. Cook dreams about a lost recipe for soup, and Despereaux, as we already know, dreams about a knight fighting darkness.
We already know a great deal about the hearts of Despereaux and Roscuro and Miggery Sow. Now we learn a bit about the heart of the princess. Like most people’s hearts, it is complicated, with dark parts and light parts. The dark parts are a “burning coal of hatred for the rat who was responsible for her mother’s death” and a spot of grief from the loss of her mother. The light parts are kindness and empathy. The latter of these feelings allows her to imagine the feelings of others. She takes the time, even in this awful situation, to imagine the feelings of the girl holding the knife to her back. Instead of being angry with Miggery Sow, the princess feels sorry for her.
In the morning, the castle awakes and finds three of its inhabitants missing. The king’s soldiers go immediately to look for the princess, and in the process, they find that Gregory is missing in the dungeons. They search for the Pea, but instead they find Gregory’s body, dead of fright.
In the kitchen, Cook weeps and grieves, bemoaning that so many awful events have befallen them “and we cannot even take comfort in soup.” Miss Louise shushes her, reminding her that it is against the law to mention soup. Cook refuses to listen. She says soup over and over again.
Both Cook and Miss Louise grieve for the princess and for Gregory. However, they worry little over the whereabouts of Miggery Sow. Miss Louise just says, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” before she turns her attention to more important matters.
When Despereaux wakes up, he overhears the conversation in the kitchen and realizes that he is too late; the princess has already been stolen. He climbs down to the floor of the pantry and slips out. He knows about Roscuro’s plan, so he knows the princess is hidden in the dungeon. Unlike Miggery Sow, he senses the real plan to keep the princess imprisoned forever. He knows he has to help, so he slips out of the pantry and goes to find the king.
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Despereaux goes to the throne room, but he does not find the king. He slips through a hole and travels through the wall to look in the princess’s room instead. On the way, he sees the thirteen members of the Mouse Council in the middle of an important meeting. The Most Very Honored Head Mouse, who is in the middle of a speech, looks up and sees him watching.
Despereaux has lost his tail. He is coated in oil and covered in flour, and the red thread is still tied around his neck “like a thin trail of blood.” The Head Mouse thinks he is a ghost. He cries out in fear, and the other members of the council cower. Only Lester, Despereaux’s father, seems glad to see him.
Just a few days have passed since Despereaux has seen his father, but Lester already looks much older. His fur has turned partly gray. He confesses that he dreams about Despereaux every night. “What I did was wrong,” he says. The Most Very Honored Head Mouse shouts at Lester to be quiet, but Lester ignores him. He says that he has destroyed the drum he beat while Despereaux was being taken to his death, and he asks for forgiveness.
Despereaux stares at his graying father, who is trembling with his paws clasped over his heart. He considers whether to forgive him. The narrator muses that forgiveness is
very much like hope and love, a powerful, wonderful thing. And a ridiculous thing, too.
It would be hard to forgive someone for sending you to your death, but Despereaux does exactly that. He does it because he feels sorry for his father and because he feels it might be the only way to keep his heart from breaking. With his forgiveness, he saves his father and himself as well.
Despereaux turns to the rest of the Mouse Council and says they were wrong. “You asked me to renounce my sins. I ask you to renounce yours. Repent,” he says. The Head Mouse refuses, and Despereaux decides it does not matter. He has seen more and knows more than most of the Mouse Council ever will.
Despereaux turns and leaves, and after he is gone, the Head Mouse holds a vote on whether they should all pretend the ghost’s visit never occurred. Twelve mice vote for the lie. Lester does not vote at all. He is too busy crying tears of relief.
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The king is in the Pea’s room, crying so hard a puddle of tears has formed at his feet. It is scary to see a king cry. A king is powerful, and it is hard to accept that he is weak and human as well. Despereaux is terrified, but he knows he has to tell the king what he knows.
Like everyone in the world, the king has some faults. His eyesight is not good. He makes “ridiculous, unreasonable, difficult-to-enforce laws,” and—like Miggery Sow—he is not very smart. However, he is an amazing man in his way. Unlike most people, he can love others with “the whole of his heart.” He loved the queen this way, and the Pea too. He cannot bear that she has been taken away.
Despereaux steps forward and shouts at the top of his lungs to make sure the king hears. He is not sure how a mouse is supposed to address a king, so he does so as well as he can, saying, “Excuse me, Most Very Honored Head Person.” The king squints down at Despereaux, thinking as usual that he is a bug. Despereaux explains that he is a mouse and that he knows where the princess is hidden.
The king does not want to listen to Despereaux. “A mouse is but one step removed from a rat,” he says. When Despereaux claims the Pea is in the dungeon, the king says this is a lie. The king’s men have already searched the dungeon and found nothing. Despereaux presses on patiently, explaining that nobody knows the dungeon as well as the rats, who could be hiding the princess in places men would never find.
The king says rats are illegal; therefore, they do not exist. When Despereaux tries to insist that they do, the king hums and shouts to drown out Despereaux’s voice. He pauses to say that he has hired fortunetellers and a magician to tell him where his daughter has been taken. Only they can be trusted to tell him the truth. Despereaux tries to insist that he is telling the truth, but the king goes back to his humming.
Eventually Despereaux has to admit that the king will not help. As he tries to figure out what to do next, he remembers his dream from the night before. He thinks of the empty armor and has an amazing thought. What if the armor was empty because it was waiting for Despereaux to fill it? He says:
I will be the knight in shining armor. There is no other way. It has to be me.
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Despereaux finds the threadmaster sitting on his spool of red thread and eating celery. The threadmaster does not seem terribly surprised when he sees Despereaux. He comments that his master would say he had done a poor job tying “the red thread of death.” However, he is quite certain he did his job properly because the thread he tied is still secure around Despereaux’s neck.
Without greeting or preamble, Despereaux announces that he needs the rest of the thread. The threadmaster refuses. He does not personally think that the red thread is sacred, as most other mice do, but he must respect tradition anyway. He cannot simply give thread away to anyone who asks for it.
Despereaux explains that he needs the thread to save the princess. He says that he alone in the castle is capable of helping her. The threadmaster says:
It seems to be that way with most things. No one to do the really disagreeable jobs except oneself.
He asks how his thread would help, and Despereaux explains that he needs to unravel it as he makes his way through the dungeon. He wants to use it as Gregory used his rope, to find his way back out of the maze. As he explains this, Despereaux chooses not to mention the fact that Gregory is dead. The idea of a similar death terrifies Despereaux, but he tries not to show this. He stutters a bit when he thinks about it, but he does not lose his resolve.
The threadmaster informs Despereaux that he is on a quest, which means that he feels “compelled to do...the impossible, important task at hand.” He says he, a mere threadmaster, cannot stand in the way of a quest, and he gives Despereaux the thread. Despereaux realizes then that he does not know the threadmaster’s name. The threadmaster introduces himself as Hovis, then he runs to get a needle. He ties it to Despereaux’s waist like a sword.
Despereaux is about to leave, but Hovis says to wait a moment. He stands up on his hind legs and bites through the thread around Despereaux’s neck. When it drops away, Hovis says:
Now you’re free. You see, you’re not going into the dungeon because you have to. You’re going because you choose to.
Despereaux agrees, and Hovis sends him on his way. At the last moment, Hovis adds that he has never seen a mouse escape from the dungeon and then, after fighting his way free, decide to go back.
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Most mice weigh about four ounces. Despereaux, who is far smaller than the average mouse, weighs a little more than two. He rolls his spool of thread—which also weighs about two ounces—through the many long hallways of the castle and down three flights of stairs. There is, practically speaking, no chance he will be able to of push this spool all the way through the dungeons and actually find the princess at the end. However, he is in love. And love, as we already know, is silly but extremely powerful—“capable of moving mountains. And spools of thread.”
By the time he reaches the kitchen, Despereaux is extraordinarily tired. His muscles ache, and his paws are shaking. He still must go through the kitchen, down the stairs to the dungeon, and through the dungeon somehow to the place where the princess is trapped in the dark. However, there is nothing to do but press on, so that is what he does. As he pushes his way into the kichen, he realizes a light is on. Someone is there. He freezes in fright.
Cook is in the kitchen making soup—illegal soup—“under the king’s very nose.” She stirs the pot, puts her face into the steam, and breathes in the smell of it. Despereaux watches, keeping still, and tries to think. He knows Cook will kill him if she sees him. But he also knows that he has more chance of getting through the kitchen now than in the morning, when the kitchen will be full of people. He decides to take his chances.
Despereaux begins to roll his thread through the kitchen. Cook hears him, freezes, and asks who is there. He stops and hides behind the spool. The window is open, and the breeze blows the smell of the soup to Despereaux, who sniffs the wonderful smell and feels better, stronger, and more ready to face danger. When Cook goes back to her soup, he goes back to his spool.
Again Cook hears movement. Again Despereaux hides behind his spool. This time Cook spots him. Despereaux closes his eyes and waits for her to kill him, but she does not do it. Instead, she laughs. She says that normally she kills every mouse she sees in her kitchen, but today she is glad to see a mouse. A mouse is far better than a soldier coming to arrest her for making soup and for owning a spoon.
Cook laughs and laughs, saying how funny it is to see a mouse with no tail, with a needle tied to his waist, rolling a spool. She says she will not kill Despereaux today or ask him what he is doing as long as he tells nobody that she has been making soup. She goes back to her stove, muttering about what the soup is missing. Despereaux stays frozen, still scared. He expected to be killed, and instead he got laughed at. What surprises him most is that the laughter hurts.
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Cook continues stirring her soup, muttering to herself that it needs something. After a moment, she notices that Despereaux is still there, still frozen in place. She holds up her candle to see him better and tells him to go on and run away. He will never have another chance to enter her kitchen and leave without being hurt.
The smell of soup wafts toward Despereaux again, and he sniffs it, whiskers trembling. Cook explains that she is indeed cooking soup, illegal soup. She explains that the princess is missing, “not that you would know or care.” She says that soup can help during terrible times. When Despereaux agrees, she shakes her head and buries her face in her hands. She has made a wonderful soup, but she has nobody to share it with. Soup is supposed to warm somebody’s heart, do some comforting. That is what is missing from her recipe.
Suddenly Cook realizes that she can share her soup with Despereaux. She fills a saucer and sets it on the floor; she promises not to hurt him. Despereaux sniffs the air, tempted by the wonderful smell. He does not trust Cook, but after considering for a while, he steps slowly toward the edge of the saucer. Keeping his eye on Cook, he climbs up and stands with his paws in the broth. He takes a sip, and it is wonderful. It is the same soup Cook made on the night the queen died. He assures Cook that it is “perfect,” not in need of any changes to the ingredients, and Cook beams. “There ain’t a body, be it mouse or man, that ain’t made better by a little soup,” she says. Despereaux plunges his head into the saucer and gulps down soup until he is full to bursting.
When Despereaux climbs out of the saucer, Cook seems disappointed. She asks him to stay and eat more, but Despereaux explains that he cannot wait because he is on a quest to save the princess. Hearing this, Cook laughs again. “You, a mouse, are going to save the princess?” Despereaux says yes, and Cook says she will not stop him. In fact, she holds the dungeon door open while Despereaux rolls his spool through. Hooting with laughter, she wishes him good luck. When he is gone, she chuckles to herself some more:
Feeding a mouse soup and then wishing him luck in saving the princess. Oh, my. Strange days indeed.
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As Despereaux stands at the top of the dungeon stairs, he sees how dark the dungeon is, and he smells rats and suffering. However, he is full of love and soup, and so he feels brave enough to try the long descent. Instead of despairing, he sets right to work moving the spool down the stairs.
The trip down is long, slow, and dark. As he travels, Despereaux cheers himself up by telling his own story like a fairy tale. He tells all about the cunning rat and the fat servant and the beautiful princess. The story makes the descent feel faster, and it makes Despereaux feel strong. He gives the spool of thread an enthusiastic shove, and it bounces forward out of his grip. Despereaux scrambles after it, but he cannot catch up.
When the thread reaches the bottom of the dungeon stairs, it rolls forward until it comes to a stop at the foot of Botticelli Remorso. Botticelli is a good dungeon rat, so he knows that red thread announces the presence of a mouse. He sniffs the air, and he smells soup, flour, oil, and human tears. Underneath it all, he smells a mouse. He smiles and sits down to wait.
Despereaux keeps chasing the thread for a while, but eventually he has to admit he has lost it. He thinks, too late, that he should have tied it to himself. Suddenly he sees how impossible and ridiculous his situation is. He tells himself he should go back upstairs, but he knows he cannot. Slowly, he continues onward into the darkness.
When Despereaux climbs down the last stair, he finds Botticelli Remorso waiting to welcome him. Despereaux reaches for his needle and says he is on a quest to save the princess and needs Botticelli to step aside. Botticelli comments that everything seems to be about the princess lately. The king’s men came for her and now Despereaux is here to look for her, too. Botticelli says he knows exactly where the princess is. He claims he wants to do what is right. He says he wants to convince people that rats are not all bad, as everyone assumes. He offers to take Despereaux to the princess.
Botticelli’s offer is a trick. He plans to take Despereaux to see the princess—and then, just when Despereaux sees what he wants most, Botticelli will kill and eat him. The little mouse will taste delicious when he is “seasoned with hope and tears and flour and oil and thwarted love.” Despereaux is suspicious, but he has no other plan. He grabs Botticelli’s tail and follows him through the dungeon.
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Despereaux makes his way into the dungeon clinging to Botticelli Remorso’s tail. Holding the tail of a rat is extremely unpleasant. Even in the best of times, it is a lot like holding a snake. In the worst possible scenario, when you are depending on the rat to keep you alive—and when you are half sure he is going to kill you—holding a rat’s tail is the most disgusting feeling in the world. But Despereaux has to do it, so he holds on tight.
The rat and the mouse work their way deep into the dungeon. Despereaux’s eyes adjust quite quickly, but this is a bad thing. Everything he sees either frightens or disgusts him. He sees a floor covered with fur, red thread, and mouse skeletons. The little white bones seem to glow before his eyes. He sees human bones as well, skulls that seem to grin and finger bones that seem to point at scary truths. Despereaux closes his eyes, but the dungeon’s images of despair are so strong that he still sees them in his imagination.
It does not help Despereaux’s confidence that Botticelli keeps laughing as he makes his way through the maze of tunnels. Nor does it help that a large group of hungry rats begins to follow them. These rats seem delighted by Despereaux—which does not make him feel confident—and they look full of evil. They sniff the air hungrily, exclaiming in delight as they shout out what they smell: “Mouse!” “Soup!” “Blood!” The rats taunt Despereaux, commenting on how little he is and drooling over how good he would taste.
Eventually Botticelli turns and faces the parade of rats. He says, with eloquent politeness, that the “little treasure” belongs to him alone. He asks them please to back away and leave him and Despereaux alone. Despereaux has kept his eyes closed through this whole encounter, but now he opens them and sneaks a peek at the rats. He sees how red-eyed and smiling they are, and he clamps his eyes shut again.
Despereaux begs Botticelli, whom he calls Mr. Remorso, not to forget the princess. By now he is crying, and the rats in the gathered crowd cry out happily that they smell little mouse tears. Botticelli is excited too, but he is not yet ready to make his attack. He tries to speak reassuringly, and he tells Despereaux that he plans to keep his promise. He stops and points to the corridor ahead, asking Despereaux what he sees. Despereaux opens his eyes one more time and looks. He sees light.
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The story here skips a few hours back in time, to the princess’s arrival in her holding cell deep in the dungeon. Roscuro tells Mig to chain the princess up. Surprised, Mig points out that the princess will have a hard time learning to be a serving maid if she is tied up. Roscuro says to do it anyway, and Mig suggests that they switch clothes first.
Roscuro lets Mig put on the princess’s crown. It is too big for her, and it slides down and lands painfully on the ears that have received so many clouts in her life. In spite of the discomfort, she does not take it off. She asks how she looks, and Roscuro says she looks “ridiculous” and “laughable.” He goes on to say that she has no chance of looking like a princess—or of being one. “You look exactly like the fool you are and always will be,” he says.
Roscuro tells Mig to do as she is told and chain the princess up. He also tells the princess that she is going to be given a life of darkness—the same life she gave him when she looked at him with such loathing on the occasion of her mother’s death.
Hearing this, Mig finally realizes that the princess will never be a serving girl, and that she will never be a princess. She protests that she wants to be a princess, and the rat says the same words Mig has heard all her life: “Nobody...cares what you want.” But for the first time, this is not true. Princess Pea cares. Over Roscuro’s objections, the Pea asks Mig what she really wants. Shocked, Mig stands still for a moment and thinks. “I want my ma!” she exclaims. The princess takes her hand and says that she, too, wants her mother back.
Roscuro sees that the situation is slipping out of his control, and he shouts at them both to stop. He demands that Mig chain the princess up. Mig refuses, pointing out that she has the knife. This does not scare Roscuro, who reminds her that she has no way back out of the dungeon without his help. Mig threatens to chop him up if he does not lead them home, but the rat stands firm. Neither of them will give in. The three of them sit down and wait for something else to happen.
They sit for hours and hours. Their candle burns down and goes out, and they have to light another one. They would probably still be sitting there if it were not for the actions of a certain brave mouse.
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The Pea recognizes Despereaux immediately and shouts out his name. To the little mouse, this is the sweetest sound in the world. It makes all his struggles—his first trip to the dungeon, his lost tail, his decision to come back into the darkness—worth it. He runs to the princess, but Roscuro stands in his way.
Mig lashes out with her knife, trying to cut off Roscuro’s head, but she misses and cuts off his tail instead. Roscuro screams out in pain and looks around at his hindquarters. While he is distracted, Despereaux draws his needle and points it straight at Roscuro’s heart. He tells Roscuro he will kill him, and Botticelli erupts in laughter, delighted at the ridiculous idea that a mouse thinks he could kill a rat. The other rats push and shove, trying to see, but Botticelli holds them back. He thinks it will be the height of fun to let Despereaux try to do his work.
Despereaux, with his needle pointed at Roscuro’s heart, pauses to wonder if it will really help to kill the rat. In that moment, Roscuro sniffs him, and
the smell of soup crash[es] through his soul like a great wave, bringing with it the memory of light, the chandelier, the music, laughter, everything, all the things that were not, would never, could never be available to him as a rat.
Roscuro moans and begins to cry. The other rats boo and hiss at this show of weakness. Roscuro ignores them. He lays himself down at Despereaux’s feet and begs to be killed. He says he only wanted some light and beauty for himself.
Botticelli demands that Despereaux kill Roscuro, who is “a miserable excuse for a rat,” but the princess asks that he be left alive. She puts her hand over her heart, aware for the first time that the darkness inside it is fighting with the light. Like Despereaux at the moment he forgave his father, she is now faced with a choice to save her enemy and herself—or to kill her enemy and harm herself. She decides that although she can never like Roscuro, she must forgive him. And so she offers him some soup.
At first, Roscuro assumes the princess is only trying to trick him. But she is not. She promises that if he leads them out of the dungeon, she will have Cook make soup for all of them—the rat included—to eat. At the mention of food, the crowd of rats demands to be allowed to eat Despereaux, but Botticelli points out that the little mouse will taste terrible, like “forgiveness and goodness. Blech.” He stalks away as the Pea takes Roscuro, Mig, and Despereaux up to the banquet hall to eat.
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The question now is whether all the characters of this story live happily ever after. They do, more or less, but their lives are not perfect. The characters experience lives that are too strange and difficult—too real—to be perfectly happy.
Of all the characters, Roscuro has the most struggles after the story ends. The princess gives him the right to go back and forth between the castle and the dungeon, but for the rest of his life he never really seems to belong in either place. This, the narrator says, is “the sad fate...of those whose hearts break and then mend in crooked ways.” Nevertheless, he redeems himself somewhat when he manages to make someone else’s life a little happier.
Roscuro tells the princess about the prisoner who used to own the red tablecloth. The princess realizes the man is Mig’s father. She orders that the man be released and makes sure he gets reunited with Mig. Mig never becomes a princess, but she does get to live with a father who spends the rest of his life treating her like one.
For Despereaux, the ending of the story is fairly happy as well. He does not marry the princess. Even in a world as crazy as this one, mice and princesses do not get married. However, they remain friends, and they have many wonderful adventures together.
This adventure ends with an enormous kettle of soup. Around it sit a king and a princess, a serving girl wearing a crown, and a rat with a spoon on his head. In the best place of all, right beside the princess, sits a tiny mouse with huge ears. On the floor, behind a velvet curtain, are four more mice. Despereaux’s parents and brother, along with the threadmaster, Hovis, watch and exclaim at how happy Despereaux looks.
On the final page of The Tale of Despereaux, the narrator reminds the reader of Despereaux’s first trip to the dungeon, when the jailer Gregory held him in his hands and asked him to tell a story. She says she wants us to think of her as if she is a mouse whose survival depends on telling a story. She wants us to remember that she is telling us her story to save herself from darkness and to save us as well.
As Gregory says to Despereaux, “Stories are light.” In her final sentence, the narrator hopes that we have found some light in her words.
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2691
Book the First: A Mouse Is Born
Despereaux Tilling, a tiny mouse with enormous ears, is born in a castle to his father, Lester, and his mother, Antoinette. Because Despereaux is born with his eyes open, everyone assumes that there must be something terribly wrong with him. As Despereaux grows up, he remains unlike other mice: he and his sister, Merlot, find a book to eat, but Despereaux instead begins reading the words in the book, and while reading, he hears music playing and is mesmerized. He follows the sound into Princess Pea's bedroom, sees the king playing the guitar to his daughter, and promplty falls in love with Pea after speaking to her.
His brother, Furlough, sees the exchange between "Mouse and Man" and tells his parents and the Mouse Council about Despereaux's strange behavior. The Mouse Council holds a trial, and as punishment, Despereaux is sent to a dungeon filled with rats. A red thread is placed around Despereaux's neck by Hovis, the mouse thread master, because Despereaux is now considered a threat to all mice. It is Hovis, however, who reminds Despereaux to be brave for the princess. Once Despereaux falls into the completely dark dungeon, he finds a long rope attached to Gregory, the castle jailer. Gregory takes a liking to Despereaux after the tiny mouse tells him a story and saves him from the many rats lurking in the shadows.
Book the Second: Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro, known as "Roscuro," is born before Despereaux's story begins. He is an innocent little rat, but is caught chewing on Gregory's rope, which leads Gregory to burns his whiskers with a match. Roscuro is enthralled by the light that the match emits; he becomes convinced that life's purpose is goodness and light until he is hypnotized with a locket by an older rat, Botticelli. This older, "wiser" rat tells Roscuro that his sole purpose is to torture prisoners by pretending to be their friend and then stealing from them the one thing that they love. Roscuro meets a prisoner who is clutching a red tablecloth as his only possession, and the rat listens to the prisoner's story of trading his only daughter for a hen, the tablecloth, and some cigarettes. Roscuro takes the man's tablecloth from him and is surprised when he realizes that torturing prisoners is distasteful.
Roscuro becomes obsessed with seeking light in all forms and eventually makes his way out of the dark dungeon and into the castle proper where he finds the royal family seated at a banquet and climbs a bright chandelier to get a better look. Princess Pea sees the rat hanging above the Royal table and screams out for everyone to look. Roscuro is frightened and falls from the chandelier right into the queen's soup (her favorite thing to eat). This shocks the queen, and she dies immediately of heart failure, while Roscuro grabs the queen's soup spoon and scurries back to the dungeon. The king is heartbroken and orders a ban on soup and all things soup-related across the Kingdom of Gor. He also orders that all ra ts are to be killed.
Book the Third: Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow
A few years before Roscuro's birth, a little girl of six watches her mother die and is subsequently sold by her father (who had named her Miggery Sow after his prized pig) for a hen, some cigarettes, and a red tablecloth. The man who buys her is called Uncle and beats her regularly about the head and ears for being slow and dull-witted; the beatings leave her a bit deaf, and her ears look like cauliflowers. The day she turns seven, Mig sees Princess Pea riding by on horseback with the royal family and is too stunned to wave. On that day, Mig decides that she wants to be a princess, and this dream lives inside her until five years later when the king bans soup, and the king's guards come to Uncle's house to take away all bowls and spoons. They discover that Mig is his slave and take her away from Uncle, as slavery is banned in the kingdom.
Mig begins working in the castle, although she is gaining weight and is very lazy about completing her chores. She is sent to give Princess Pea a spool of red thread and becomes engrossed in the conversation she is not supposed to have with the princess. Mig is then reassigned to the kitchen, where Cook sends her to the dungeon with a meal for Gregory, the jailer. She meets Roscuro in the dungeon and relays to him her greatest wish—to be a Princess—which Roscuro promises to help her do if she will help him kidnap Pea, in revenge for his having to return to the dungeon. Roscuro's plan is that Mig and Pea will trade places: Pea will be the serving girl, and Mig will be the princess.
Book the Fourth: Recalled to the Light
Gregory's tray is carried by Mig up to the kitchen, and on it hides Despereaux, who overhears her conversation with Roscuro and knows the rat's plans for his beloved Pea. Mig discovers Despereaux, and in his attempt to flee from Cook, chops off the mouse's tail with a knife. Despereaux sleeps on a sack of flour hidden in a pantry and dreams of a knight's armor which is lacking a heroic knight. Roscuro gets Mig to Pea's bedroom with a knife, where they kidnap the princess and take her down to the dungeon. The castle awakens to the missing princess and guards are sent to look everywhere. While in the dungeon, guards find Gregory dead, his rope chewed in half, and they assume he was lost wandering in the dark.
Despereaux, covered in flour from the night before, is thought to be a ghost when seen by the Mouse Council. He encounters his father, who begs his forgiveness for sending him to the dungeon and is immediately forgiven by young Despereaux who then finds the king and tells him that he knows Pea is in the dungeon. Because Despereaux is a rodent, the king refuses to believe him. Hovis, the mouse thread master, gives Despereaux a spool of red thread and a sewing needle for protection, as the mouse decides to go on a quest and save the missing princess himself. On his way back to the dungeon, he encounters Cook, illegally making soup, and she is so happy that he is not a castle guard, she feeds him and releases him to continue to the dungeon. Botticelli meets Despereaux below and offers to take the mouse to Pea, and although Despereaux senses a trap, he feels he is without options and follows Botticelli.
Roscuro, whose plan is to keep Princess Pea in the dungeon to experience the light in her brightly colored clothes, explains to Mig that she will never be a princess. Despereaux appears, and angry Mig chops off Roscuro's tail with the knife she still carries. They are quickly surrounded by dozens of rats who smell a mouse and have followed Despereaux to the Princess. Despereaux threatens Roscuro with the sewing needle, and the rat begins to cry which moves Pea to offer him some soup if he releases her. He agrees, and the other rats leave in disgust that nothing vicious or violent will occur.
Roscuro takes Mig to see her father, who sees her as his princess, and the rat is released from the dungeon by Pea, who now allows him to go up into the light of the castle. Pea and Despereaux become very close friends, and these four share some soup together at the king's table. The mice are amazed.
Light and darkness are used as symbols to portray the ideas of hope and goodness triumphing over evil. The darkness of the dungeon is complete: no light can get in, and no one gets outs. A rope is used to find one's way around in the dark, and when the rope is broken one is hopelessly lost, even to the point of death. The darkness in the dungeon is comfortable to the evil rats who thirst for violence and the blood of innocent mice, and it is into the darkness that prisoners are sent to serve their time--both mice and men; it is the darkness that blocks out any light (hope) from "above." Roscuro's obsession with light and goodness early in the story find their way round to the end, when he realizes that revenge does not soothe his soul; instead, it is being given access to the light in the castle above the dungeon which transforms him from evil. The light of the match which was struck as his whiskers were burned when a young mouse, left a desire in him that had to be fulfilled. "I think," says Roscuro, "that the meaning of life is light." His first hope was that his existence was meant for something more than the suffering of others.
"All living things have a heart. And the heart of any living thing can be broken." Despereaux's heart is broken when his father, Lester, turns his back and beats the drum that sends his unusual son to the dungeon for the crime of being himself. Despereaux eventually forgives his remorseful father, and his heart is healed a bit.
Miggery's heart is broken at her mother's death and again at her father's subsequent sale of her into slavery; however, when her father sees her again, his cold heart has changed to accept her as his daughter, his "princess."
Princess Pea's heart is broken at the death of her mother, who dies of heart failure upon seeing a rat hanging from a chandelier; it is the kindness Pea shows to others that helps her heart to heal. The king's heart is also broken when the queen dies, and he deals with her death by uttering absurd decrees and ridiculous orders. We are not told whether his heart is put together again, but he is described, seated next to Pea at the end of the novel, as the "adoring king."
Roscuro's heart is broken when he realizes what he is—a rat—and what that means to the rest of the world: that he is forced to live beneath the light. "Go back to the dungeon....Go back into the darkenss where you belong," the princess's look tells him. This heartbreak leads him to perpetrate much suffering upon others, and his plan to keep the princess as a source of light in the dark dungeon displays his need for hope, love, and goodness. He is somewhat restored when "allowed to go back and forth from the darkness of the dungeon to the light of the upstairs." He never feels at home in either place, and we are told that is the sad fate "of those whose hearts break and then mend in crooked ways."
Courage and honor are displayed time and again as Despereaux faces his "giants": the Mouse Council, the dungeon, Cook, Boticelli, and finally Roscuro. It his love for Princess Pea and his desire to live up to the chivalric code about which he read in a fairy tale that propels him down into the dungeon the second time voluntarily. Despereaux accepts the saving of Pea as his duty after attempting to get help from the king, who will not listen because he has hired fortune-tellers and a magician who will tell him where his daughter is located. He says that a mouse cannot speak the truth. Despereaux's dream returns to him, and he sees the empty suit of armor and decides it was empty because it was waiting for him, and he makes a decision that requires honor and courage. "I'll have to do it myself," says the mouse. "I will be the knight in shining armor. There is no other way. It has to be me." He is, as the threadmaster explained, "...on a quest...You just have to feel compelled to do the thing, the impossible, important task at hand." It is Despereaux's bravery in the face of near-certain death that saves himself and the princess.
Despereaux Tilling is the story's protagonist, and it is around this tiny, unassuming mouse that all action eventually revolves. Despereaux is born in a castle and is the only living mouse of his mother's final litter. He is named Despereaux by his French mother "for all the sadness, for the many despairs in this place," and he is not expected to live, as his ears are enormous, his body is tiny, and his eyes opened far too early. In fact, he does live and grows to be an oddball among the castle mice, choosing to read books rather than eat them. While reading a fairy tale one day, he becomes enthralled with the ideas of courage and honor when his oversized ears hear music played by the king for his lovely daughter, Princess Pea. Despereaux not only speaks to the princess but allows her to touch him, and he falls desperately in love. He is seen conversing with the humans and brought before the Mouse Council whose members sentence him to the dungeon as punishment. He must dig deep within and use his wits and courage to save the princess and himself.
Princess Pea of Dor is the only child in the royal family. Despereaux falls in love with her after meeting her only once, and Pea's kind heart adores him as well. She is lonely when her mother dies and is easily offended when people do not treat her as she believes a princess should be treated. She is kidnapped and chooses to use her finer qualities of goodness and forgiveness, as well as her position of royalty, to help others, which helps her own heart to heal.
Chiaroscuro (or "Roscuro") is the ostensible antagonist of the story. He was born innocent; however, he grew among and was influenced by the evil rats of the castle dungeon. Rocsuro sees light for the first time when the jailer reprimands him by lighting a match and setting his whiskers afire, and it is then that he becomes fascinated with light and professes that it must be the meaning of life. His love of light leads to his banishment to the dungeon and the kidnapping of Princess Pea. He is eventually redeemed of causing others to suffer through his love of light and the forgiveness of others.
Miggery "Mig" Sow is a child who is told very early that what she wants does not matter a bit. Her mother dies, and her father sells her into slavery for a hen, some cigarettes, and a red tablecloth. Mig is forced to work for a man she calls "Uncle" and endure his clouts to her ear, making her nearly deaf and slightly resembling a stalk of cauliflower. She sees Princess Pea riding by when she is seven and is determined that she, too, will be a princess; she holds this dream close to her hear until years later when she is rescued from "Uncle" by the king's men who are scouring the countryside collecting all things soup-related. The queen is dead, and soup has been outlawed. It seems slavery is against the law of the land, as well, and she is sent to be a servant in the castle. Her desperate wish to be a princess leads her to be manipulated by Roscuro and used for his plan to create pain and suffering through the kidnapping of Princess Pea.
Boticelli Remorso is an old rat with only one ear who lives in the dungeon and encourages Roscuro to find the meaning of life through the suffering of others. He is evil and plans death to the princess in order to feed her to his army of rats.
Gregory the Jailor wears a rope to keep him from getting lost in the dungeon and killed by the rats. He introduces light to Roscuro unintentionally by setting the rat's whiskers on fire, which is the inciting incident in the story. He is found dead from starvation after Roscuro chews through his rope.