Children’s literature is rich in mouse characters; Despereaux, Angelina Ballerina, Anatole, Stuart Little, Reepicheep, Aesop’s Town and Country Mice, The Lion and the Mouse and Disney’s ever-cheerful Mickey. Literary rats are rarer creatures.
Whilst mouse characters are often portrayed as brave, courageous and determined, their rodent cousins are more likely to be the bad guys. Does this link back to Aesop’s use of mice to teach life lessons, or might it be because mice have larger ears and heads, traits which humans find cute?
With 2020 being the Year of the Metal Rat, it seems timely to seek out a couple of positive rat characters. The Highway Rat (Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler) features an endearing villain who gets his comeuppance and learns meekness. Another more layered bad guy is Templeton, the gluttonous rat in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White).
Templeton serves as a useful counterbalance to the selfless Charlotte and goofy big-hearted Wilbur. ‘The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything… Everybody knew it.’ I love the phrase ‘no milk of rodent kindness’ and have a soft spot for this villain who doesn’t pretend to be what he’s not. Templeton says of himself, ‘I prefer to spend my time eating, gnawing, spying, and hiding. I am a glutton but not a merrymaker.’
E.B. White was a masterful storyteller. His characters, both human and animal, are multi-layered. Templeton helps Charlotte and Wilbur on his own sneaky terms, but if you read carefully perhaps there is more depth to this rodent …
Whilst Templeton grumbles whenever asked to help, he does help. This complex rat is pragmatic but not heartless. Before running off to gorge on fairground scraps, he says, ‘Fare thee well, Charlotte, you old schemer!’ Unlike Wilbur, Templeton knows the spider is dying. The grumpy rat then helps Wilbur protect Charlotte’s babies through a harsh winter. Charlotte’s Web is a book about friendship and Templeton is a friend of sorts.
The Year of the Metal Rat is said to be a prosperous time of new beginnings. With bushfires, drought and flooding across Australia we are certainly in need of new beginnings. May your 2020 friendships prosper and may your Metal Rat projects be lucky. Happy Chinese New Year.