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Literature / The Tale of Despereaux

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The world is dark, and light is precious.
Come closer, dear reader.
You must trust me.
I am telling you a story.

A Newberry Award winning fantasy book for children written by Kate DiCamillo. The book itself is split into four separate stories: "A Mouse Is Born," "Chiaroscuro," "Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow," and "Recalled to the Light." The first three introduce the three threads of the plot and then they are all brought together in the final story.

  1. A Mouse Is Born: The story's protagonist is Despereaux, the only survivor of his litter. He was born with open eyes, huge ears, and no fear. When his father (brother in the movie) takes him to the library to eat books, he ends up reading a fairy tale about a knight and princess, instead. He befriends the Princess Pea and vows to honor her.
  2. Chiaroscuro: Or Roscuro, a rat born innocent among the evil rats of the dungeon. An encounter with a jailer led to his whiskers being singed off. This event led to his desire for light and goodness, eventually leading him to leave the dungeons and explore the world above. Unfortunately, he falls into the Queen's bowl of soup, leading to her death. Roscuro is effectively banished back to the dungeon, and for this he craves revenge.
  3. Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow: Mig was sold into slavery at a young age for some cigarettes, a hen, and a red tablecloth. The man she called "uncle" beat her about the ears until she was nearly deaf. A chance encounter with the Princess Pea led to her desire to become a princess.
  4. Recalled to the Light: Here things come to a head, as Chiaroscuro manipulates the mentally unstable Mig into doing his bidding and Despereaux is able to come into his own as the hero of his very own fairy tale.

The books were adapted to a CG animated film in 2008 by Framestore, which Disneyfied many of the darker elements while still keeping much of the original fairy tale feel of the book.

Tropes for both the book and the film:

  • Disproportionate Retribution: When the Queen dies after Roscuro falls into her soup, the King forbids making or eating soup and outlaws rats in Dor.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Enforced. Due to the Queen's death, rats and mice alike are feared by residents of the kingdom and it is immediately "on sight" if a rodent is seen. It's implied humans in general are aware that rodents are sapient, so this is also a blend of Fantastic Racism.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: To the mice, as, besides the "banning the rats" thing, they are seen as scary and something that is best avoided because humans set out traps and send cats after them.
  • Mouse World: The story has one for mice, who live in hiding in the main castle, and one for rats, who live in the lightless dungeon. They all have to stay hidden because, after the Queen died of a heart attack after a rat fell in her soup, the king essentially declared war on the rats, and on the mice by association, forcing them all into hiding.
  • My Species Doth Protest Too Much: Despereaux to the other mice, as, despite, the King outlawing the rats (and mice, by extension), interacts with the humans and even partakes in some of the stuff they do. Likewise, we have Roscuro who was born in the darkness but was so attracted to light, unfortunately, this leads to him falling into the Queen's soup. In the film, Roscuro's pretty much the same, as he's the only rat that's not evil.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Despereaux, if Timothy Basil Ering's illustrations are anything to go by. This is expanded upon in the film.
  • Three-Month-Old Newborn: Despereaux, as, unlike the other mice, he was born with his eyes open (which was lampshaded in the book). In the film, he was born with his eyes open and furred.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Invoked, as what lead to the rats being banned was when Roscuro fell into the soup and the Queen was startled, falling backwards into her chair and hitting her head on the floor, dying thereafter. On the other hand, from we've seen from the dungeon, the rats are rather unpleasant themselves, however, as Roscuro shows, they do have the capacity to be good, they just act awful.

Tropes found in the book:

  • Abusive Parents: A recurring theme. All the parents in the book besides Pea's are awful to their kids.
    • Miggery's dad sold her for cheap items and her mom tells her that nobody cares what she wants right before her death. Though, Mig's mother seems to be a played with case. If Miggery calling out for her mother at the end is an indication, we can presume that she was loving.
    • Despereaux's dad actually helps him go to the dungeon and, unlike his mother, doesn't protest the idea because the Council commanded that he go.
    • Chiaroscuro's parents wanted to sell him for money, on top of being neglectful.
  • An Aesop: A small act of kindness can be very important. Gregory saves Despereaux from the rats and the dungeon in exchange for a story. Mig starts to dream of becoming a princess when she sees the Princess Pea wave to her one day and say hello. Cook gives Despereaux some soup and wishes him good luck saving the princess. And Roscuro makes a Heel–Face Turn when the princess offers him some soup.
  • Animated Armor: Despereaux dreams of this.
  • Arc Words: For Miggery Sow, variations of "No one cares what you want," said to her at various points by her mother, father, Uncle, Cook, Roscuro and others. It's only when the Princess Pea asks the opposite, "What do you want, Miggery Sow?" that Mig realizes what she really wants: her mom back.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "What do you want, Miggery Sow?" Because of this, Mig realizes she doesn't want to be a princess, she just wants her mom.
  • Baby as Payment: Mig's father sells her to a crabby, cruel man to buy a few items such as a chicken and a red cloth from him. In the present day, he is shown to deeply regret having given up his daughter.
  • Badass Bookworm: Despereaux, by mouse standards, as he's not much afraid of anything and he's certainly more literate than the other mice (as he does read the books, not nibble on them).
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Adorable Despereaux and the Princess Pea are good. Plain but not hideous Mig and Chiaroscuro are subject to evil urges (but are eventually redeemed), and the ugly rats are Always Chaotic Evil (except for Chiaroscuro). But on the other hand, Despereaux's mother Antoinette is beautiful, but a rather vain and shallow mouse who is more concerned with her looks being ruined after giving birth to several dead babies.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Chiaroscuro is a style of painting and photography involving extreme contrast between light and dark. It's a combination of the Italian words for "light" (lit. clear) and "dark" (fig. obscured).
    • Despereaux's mother, Antoinette, specifically picked his name because it meant "despair"!
  • Catchphrase: Mig's catchphrase is "Gor!", which she says when she's surprised or happy.
  • The Corrupter: Botticelli, who encourages Roscuro's more evil and vengeful side and tells him that causing others pain is the meaning of life.
  • Ear Ache: When Mig is young, she is enslaved to an abusive man who makes a habit of giving her "a good clout to the ear" every day. After years of this treatment, her ears start looking like cauliflowers stuck to the sides of her head and make it difficult for her to hear anything, which makes people think she is stupid.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Two:
    • Mig, when she realizes the rats were tricking her, is ready to kill Roscuro when the Princess extends a hand of kindness.
    • Roscuro when he accepts the Princess' offer of soup.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: The queen has a sudden, fatal heart attack when Roscuro is swinging from the chandelier and falls into her soup. In his grief, the king bans all soup from the kingdom, as well as all spoons, kettles, and bowls.
  • Karma Houdini: Botticelli, for all he did (like trying to get Princess Pea killed), doesn't get any punishment, none that we see, anyway.
  • Last-Second Chance: Despereaux realizes that killing Roscuro wouldn't achieve anything. Then the Princess, who has hated Roscuro ever since the Queen died when he fell into her soup, puts aside her hate and promises him soup if he leads them out of the dungeon. In a twist, Roscuro accepts, invoking a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Loony Laws: After the Queen dies of a heart attack from seeing Roscuro in her soup, the grieving king outlaws all soup, as well as all spoons, kettles, and bowls, and sends his soldiers to confiscate all spoons, kettles, and bowls in the kingdom. He also outlaws rats, which is seen as redundant because rats are already unwelcome and outlawing them does little to change that fact.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: All the little mice in Lester's and Antoinette's last litter are stillborn. All, that is, except Despereaux. He receives his name because his mother expects him to die soon, too.
  • Princess Classic: Princess Pea, who's lovely, kind, and is one the good characters of the book.
  • Sole Survivor: At the beginning of the book, Despereaux is the only one of his litter to be born alive. Because he is so tiny, his family expects that he will die soon as well. (He doesn't.)
  • Stealth Pun: Considering the thematic use of light and darkness, it's rather fitting the D'or is French for "golden".
  • Tragic Keepsake: When Botticelli is teaching Roscuro to be cruel, he makes him befriend a prisoner whose only possession is a precious red tablecloth, and then steal it for himself. That man is Mig's father, and he traded her for that red tablecloth, a hen and a handful of cigarettes when she was six.
  • Treated Worse than the Pet: Mig is a slave to a man she is forced to call Uncle. On her seventh birthday, he tells her that he wishes every night he could have back the hen he traded for her, because it was a good egg-layer.
  • Vicious Cycle: Uncle's habit of repeatedly hitting Mig on the ears makes it difficult for her to hear, which makes it difficult for her to understand and follow orders, which makes him think she's stupid and hit her on the ears some more, which makes her hearing worse, and so it goes for years until her ears look like cauliflowers stuck to the sides of her head and she can hardly hear anything at all.